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Can racial injustice be settled out of court? Researchers suggest looking past politics to behavioral policy reforms

January 14, 2015

Los Angeles, CA -  2014 was replete with social unrest to protest police brutality and racial inequality. With many calling for policy reform to improve race problems in the U.S. criminal justice system, new research suggests that the issue is less political and more behavioral. Researchers recommend increased documentation, institutional diversity, and bias training in a new paper published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (PIBBS),a SAGE Journal.

“Individuals with different ideologies and political affiliations may well debate police enforcement priorities or factors that contribute to crime. However, people on both sides of the political aisle could agree that racial disparities in charging decisions, jury verdicts, and sentencing violate core American principles related to justice,” wrote the researchers Samuel R. Sommers and Satia A. Marotta of Tufts University. 

Analyzing racial disparities in policing, charging decisions and trial outcomes, Sommers and Marotta recommend three new policy interventions focused on data, diversity, and training:

  • Bias training: Real-world data on police encounters with civilians indicate that some minority groups are perceived as more dangerous than whites and are treated differently as a result. The researchers support police training that diminishes racial associations with crime in order to reduce racial bias.
  • Institutional diversity: Studying case data from the 1990s to the present, the researchers found a correlation between jury racial composition and different legal outcomes. To prevent disparities in jury rulings, more attention needs to be placed on the pre-trial aspects of the jury selection process, such as minority underrepresentation  and measuring bias in potential jurors.
  • Documentation of disparities: In order to better understand and prevent what leads to racial inequality in legal decision-making, more data are needed on racial inequalities in policing and trial outcomes.

“One of the strongest tools for combating implicit bias is consciousness raising—making our unconscious associations conscious, and simply recognizing that bias can occur even among those of good intent. For racial disparities in legal outcomes, such acknowledgment of potential problems need not be cast as a ‘political issue.’”


Find out more by reading the full article, “Racial Disparities in Legal Outcomes: On Policing, Charging Decisions, and Criminal Trial Proceedings” available free for a limited time here.


SAGE is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. Since 1965, SAGE has helped inform and educate a global community of scholars, practitioners, researchers, and students spanning a wide range of subject areas including business, humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, and medicine. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC.
Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciencesis a new annual publication that presents original research and scientific reviews relevant to public policy. This annual will

  • Allow scientists to share research that can help build sound policies.
  • Allow policymakers to provide feedback to the scientific community regarding research that could address societal challenges.

Encourage the scientific community to build models that seriously consider implementation to address the needs of society.

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