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Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?

52 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2009  

Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Cornell Law School

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Cornell Law School

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Abstract

Race matters in the criminal justice system. Black defendants appear to fare worse than similarly situated white defendants. Why? Implicit bias is one possibility. Researchers, using a well-known measure called the implicit association test, have found that most white Americans harbor implicit bias toward Black Americans. Do judges, who are professionally committed to egalitarian norms, hold these same implicit biases? And if so, do these biases account for racially disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system? We explored these two research questions in a multi-part study involving a large sample of trial judges drawn from around the country. Our results - which are both discouraging and encouraging - raise profound issues for courts and society. We find that judges harbor the same kinds of implicit biases as others; that these biases can influence their judgment; but that given sufficient motivation, judges can compensate for the influence of these biases.

Keywords: Judges, race

JEL Classification: J7, K14

Suggested Citation

Rachlinski , Jeffrey J. and Johnson, Sheri Lynn and Wistrich, Andrew J. and Guthrie, Chris, Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?. Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, 2009; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 09-11. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1374497

Jeffrey John Rachlinski (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-5878 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-6478 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90012
United States

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-322-6823 (Phone)
615-322-6631 (Fax)

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