Fact Sheets
Featured Video
  • National Press Club Forum: A 25-Year Vision for Criminal Justice Reform
  • Unlocking Justice: Alternatives to Prison
State Contacts
June 3, 2011

Race and Justice News

Feature Story: Racial Bias Law Not Working in Missouri
In the Courts: Confederate Flag Plays Role in Death Penalty Appeal
Spotlight on Research: Lighter Skin Reduces Prison Time Among Black Women; Perceived Racial Injustice Among Court Users
New Book: Disproportionate Minority Contact

Racial Bias Law Not Working in Missouri
The St. Louis Beacon reports that despite a law that requires judges to consider racial disparity when deciding to try a minor as an adult, African American youth are still being tried disproportionately. According to a recent analysis of Missouri’s criminal justice data, in 2009, African American juveniles between 10 and 17 accounted for 64% of youth transferred to adult court.     

The intent of the racial bias legislation was to compel judges to think about the issue of racial disparity when making the decision to transfer juvenile cases to adult court.  Mae Quinn, a law professor and co-director of a legal clinic which primarily defends black juveniles in St. Louis County, argues that judges should consider factors such as race-based policing and that juvenile court officers should assess racial disparity in their recommendations to judges at certification hearings.   

Confederate Flag Plays Role in Death Penalty Appeal
According to the Shreveport Times, the question of whether the Confederate flag flying outside a courthouse has the power to intimidate potential black jurors was heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court in an appeal of a death penalty conviction.  Attorneys for Felton Dorsey, a man convicted in the deadly 2006 pummeling of a Caddo Parish fire captain, argued that the Confederate flag creates a threatening racist undertone in judicial proceedings.  The Times-Picayune also reported that Dorsey’s attorneys pleaded with the state’s highest court over the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges in selecting jurors, pointing out that five of seven prospective black jurors (71%) were excluded.  Dorsey’s jury had 11 white jurors and one Black juror.  

Anna Arceneaux, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said “What we’re really hoping is that the Supreme Court will use this as an opportunity to send a very clear message that the influence of racial bias in the capital punishment system is intolerable.  Removing the Confederate flag is the first step on that path.”  The most recent attempt to remove the flag was in 2002 by Caddo Commissioner Ken Epperson.  The court is expected to render its decision in July.    

Lighter Skin Reduces Prison Time Among Black Women
A recent study, “The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders,” by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina of Villanova University assesses how perceived skin tone is related to the maximum prison sentence and time served for a sample of over 12,158 black women imprisoned in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009.  The authors controlled for factors such as prior record, conviction date, prison misconduct, and being thin, as well as whether the woman was convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes usually carry lengthy prison sentences.  With regard to prison sentences, their results indicated that women deemed to have light skin are sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts.  The results also show that having light skin reduces the actual time served by approximately 11%.  

The authors conclude by urging people to understand that it is not sufficient to understand racial discrimination in terms of relative advantages of whites compared to non-whites.  Among blacks, characteristics associated with whiteness appear to also have a significant impact on important life outcomes.    

Viglione, Jill, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina.  2011.  “The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders.”  The Social Science Journal, 48:250-258.  

Perceived Racial Injustice Among Court Users
A study by Jamie Longazel, Laurin Parker, and Ivan Sun uses critical race theory to analyze whether racial and/or ethnic groups differentially experience the court process and whether such differences can be accounted for by how actors in the court proceedings differently experience race. Critical race theory posits that (1) racism is endemic in American society; (2) neutrality is a myth; (3) experiential knowledge of racial minorities should be privileged and; (4) race is merely a social construction and therefore unable to explain attitudes or behavior to approach the topic of citizens perceptions of courts.   

The study assesses the actors’ experience of race by utilizing data from the National Center for State Courts Study, Public Opinion on the Courts in the United States, 2000.  The dependent variables in their model are measures of interpersonal disrespect, perceptions of bias, voicelessness and untrustworthiness.  The model also controlled for race, other demographic factors, as well as variables measuring the nature of their participation in a court proceeding, views on whether the court experience was affordable and whether their case was handled in a timely manner.  

Consistent with previous studies, the findings indicate that “despite already having the highest levels of contempt for the courts as a group, African Americans with recent court experience have significantly more negative attitudes toward the court than their non-court using counterparts.”  In addition, African Americans perceive significantly more injustice compared to whites.  Compared to whites, blacks were significantly more likely to feel they were disrespected and that court staff could not be trusted.  The study found that there were no significant differences in perceptions among court users between whites and Latinos.  

Longazel, Jamie G., Laurin S. Parker, and Ivan Y. Sun.  2011.  “Experiencing Court, Experiencing Race: Perceived Procedural Injustice Among Court Users.”  Race and Justice, 1(2):202-227.

Disproportionate Minority Contact
Disproportionate Minority Contact, edited by Nicolle Parsons-Pollard, features the writings of scholars and practitioners who provide discussions of current policies and practices, case studies, and factors that impact disparate treatment in the juvenile justice system.  In doing so, this volume provides an assortment of information related to overrepresentation and the disparate treatment of minorities, including discussion on how the child welfare system, the war on drugs, and racially biased law enforcement contribute to the problem.

Issue Area(s): Racial Disparity