The Network is currently conducting two studies designed to investigate the extent to which adults' perceptions and attitudes about the culpability of young offenders are influenced by the age, race, and appearance of maturity of the offender. On the practical side, this research may provide information about the biases that different groups of people may have toward juvenile perpetrators, and it may illuminate the sorts of information that should be provided to legislators, legal professionals, and mental health personnel who do competence evaluations. Moreover, the findings of the studies could contribute to a more thoughtful and nuanced public discussion about youthful crime and punishment, and to a better informed public.

Racial Stereotypes and Judgments of
Juvenile Culpability

In this study, we are using a social psychological technique called "priming" to examine whether the disproportionately harsh treatment of ethnic minority youth in the criminal justice system is influenced by conscious and unconscious stereotypes about these groups' criminal intent and culpability. We are particularly interested in studying whether subtle exposure to stereotypes of ethnic minorities affects a police officer's judgment about how to handle an ambiguous crime involving an ethnic minority suspect. Participants in this study are primed in ways that either do or do not activate their unconscious stereotypes about African-Americans. The primed and non-primed groups then read identical descriptions of an actual crime (with no information provided about the race of the perpetrator) and are asked a series of questions about the perpetrator's culpability. This research is intended to shed new light on an important and controversial disparity in the criminal justice system between the way ethnic minorities are treated compared to non-minority youth.

Progress to Date

Data collection has been completed. An empirical article based on the findings of this study is currently under review at Journal of Law and Human Behavior.

Public Perceptions of Youthful Culpability

In this study, we are examining how judgments of culpability are affected by the provision of different information about the age, race, and physical appearance of the perpetrator. Participants in the study are shown a video of an actual crime committed by an individual whose age, race, and physical appearance are blocked from the camera. We then systematically vary the information about these characteristics when we ask participants to make judgments about guilt, punishment, and blameworthiness. The study also seeks to determine whether adults who themselves vary by gender, age, socioeconomic status, and race manifest different attitudes.

Progress to Date

Data collection has been completed and the findings of this study are currently being written for publication.

MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice