September 01, 2012

Race Affects Perceptions about Sentencing and Culpability of Juvenile Offenders

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Black juvenile offenders are viewed as more like adult offenders in their culpability than White juvenile offenders, according to a new study. The study also found Black juveniles face harsher sentencing because of this perception. The study results show how protections differ for juveniles in the criminal justice system when race is a factor. It also questions whether all juveniles receive the same basic protections that the juvenile justice system aims to provide.

The Study

Researchers from Stanford University looked at whether race influences the degree to which juveniles are viewed as less culpable than adults and influences punitive responses. They studied whether White Americans would perceive juvenile status as a mitigating factor to the same degree for Black versus White juvenile offenders. They hypothesized that priming study participants with information about whether juvenile offenders were Black versus White would affect their perceptions.

A nationally representative sample of 735 White Americans were included in the study; 347 were males and 388 were females. The mean age of participants was 50.5. Of the original sample, 658 participants were selected to participate in an online study.
Participants were provided factual information about the recent Supreme Court cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which considered the constitutionality of life without parole for juvenile offenders.

Participants read a case scenario, drawn from one of the two Supreme Court cases, about a 14-year-old male with 17 prior juvenile convictions who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for brutally raping an elderly woman. The researchers created two study conditions; in one the juvenile was Black, in the other he was White. For both groups, the researchers assessed the level of participants’ support for sentencing options, and their perceptions of the juveniles’ culpability.

Participants were asked to complete two scales gauging their feelings toward Black versus White offenders; they were asked to rate both White and Black Americans on a scale of 0 (very cold or unfavorable) to 100 (very warm or favorable). They also measured political party affiliation: strong republican (1), strong democrat (7), and political ideology: extremely liberal (1), extremely conservative (7). A final question probed their memory of the defendant’s race; those participants who did not accurately recall the race were excluded.


Associating a crime with a Black juvenile, versus White, affects perceptions of juveniles’ culpability relative to adults. Those participants who received information about the case involving a Black offender expressed far greater support for life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders in nonhomicide cases than those whose sample cases involved White offenders.  Associating the crime with Black juveniles also caused participants to view the juvenile offenders as more blameworthy than White offenders.

Race affects support for life without parole sentences and juvenile’s blameworthiness relative to adults. Participants whose cases involved a Black juvenile offender showed greater support for life without parole sentences. They also viewed juveniles’ and adults’ culpability as much more alike as participants whose cases involved White juvenile offenders.

Feelings of warmth towards Blacks influenced views toward sentencing and culpability. Participants in both the Black and White sample conditions rated themselves as feeling more warmly towards White than Black Americans. The researchers found that how warmly participants felt toward Black Americans correlated with their views about sentencing and culpability.

Those with less positive feelings towards Black Americans tended to support life without parole sentences and viewed juveniles’ culpability as similar to adults.’ This did not carry over to the White control group, however, as warmth toward White Americans did not influence views about sentencing or culpability.

Political attitudes did not strongly affect participants’ views. The researchers found the role of race in participants’ views towards Black juvenile offenders functioned above and beyond any effects that political ideology and warmth toward Black Americans had. Further, the role of race in perceptions of juveniles’ sentencing and blameworthiness was the same for liberal and more conservative participants.


The study shows that race can affect the protections given to juveniles who commit crimes. It suggests that race may result in unfair outcomes and policies for Black juveniles in the juvenile justice system. The researchers note that the legal protections associated with juvenile status may be more fragile than many think; while we tend to think of juveniles as a protected class deserving of special protections, that distinction may be undermined in cases involving Black juvenile


Source: “Race and the Fragility of the Legal Distinction between Juveniles and Adults.” PLoS ONE 7(5), 2012,  <>