The Equal Justice Initiative just released a report about racial bias in jury selection, particularly in the South. I first heard about it on NPR. Racial discrimination in jury selection is illegal, but evidence suggests it’s still quite common, particularly through the use of peremptory challenges (the ability of attorneys to exclude a certain number of potential jurors without having to say why or justify it).
The results are striking; for instance, “…in Houston County, Alabama, 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors in death penalty cases” (p. 4 of the report).
Here’s a short video about one case:
The report doesn’t have as many informational images as I’d like, but here’s one showing the race of District Attorneys in several Southern states:
This video gives a historical overview, though it’s maybe not the most captivating description you’ll ever encounter:
And with that, dear readers, I’m off to court, as I got a jury summons and now must find out if I’ll end up on an actual jury. I’m taking lots of reading material.
angelica — June 21, 2010
The ability of prosecutors to strike people off is... well, a bit fucked. From the point of view of someone trying to secure a prosecution and get the harshest sentence possible, it makes a lot of sense to exclude Black people from the jury. Black people are more likely to be targeted for arrest, and particularly more likely to be threatened with the death penalty, often for lesser crimes than those for which their white counterparts are given more lenient sentences. White jurors are much less likely to be aware of the racism that is deeply embedded in the system, and consequently more likely to convict and hand down capital sentences.
el.j — June 21, 2010
Studies have not shown, however, that Black people are less willing to convict than white people - in fact, because Black people themselves often live in high crime neighbourhoods, Black people are in many cases more likely to be sympathetic to crime victims and in favour of law enforcement. While the perception seems to be that Black people are hostile to police and the judicial system and thus less likely to convict, this has not in fact been borne out by any study I've seen. Where Black jurors and white jurors differ is not in terms of critique of the court system or less trust in police, but rather that Black people do not share the straight-up racism that works to convict Black people and contributes to harsher sentences, particularly for darker-skinned black males. This is an important point - it is not that Black people are more aware of racism in the system and thus judge Black defendants differently or view the prosecution with more skepticism - it is ONLY that white racism makes many white jurors unfit to be judging. If anyone should be automatically barred from juries based on racial bias, it should be white people, who are in fact demonstrated to be less capable of objectively judging defendants than people of other races.
el.j — June 21, 2010
Before someone accuses me of saying I think white people shouldn't serve on juries - that is not my point. My point is simply that studies have not shown Black people to be less willing to convict. Studies have, however, demonstrated the racism active in the judicial system, from racial profiling, to disproportionate sentencing and conviction, etc. Many studies have shown that Black on white crime is treated more harshly, that Black defendants are disproportionately given the death penalty, and so forth. In other words, while nothing proves Black people make less objective jurors, multiple studies show that white racism is a decisive factor in the justice system. Juror selection is one more example of this systematic discrimination. However, nothing will be done to change it - as to acknowledge these studies is to acknowledge the failure of the justice system as a whole. I remember reading about how a study was done in Georgia that Black defendants were 5.3 times more likely to be convicted than white defendants (or something like that) and when the evidence was submitted, it was overturned, not because the findings were wrong, but because to acknowledge them would be to admit the system is racist, and that would cause too many problems in invalidating convictions. Similarly, to actually acknowledge racism in these cases would be to say that these convictions must be overturned due to bias in jury selection, and that simply is not going to happen.
owl — June 21, 2010
A jury shouldn't be selected by lawyers anyway but be a random group. Are there any other countries who have a selection process for jurors? I'm talking about the ability to reject someone who is otherwise legally able to sit.
angelica — June 21, 2010
Oh, really? Thank'ee for the rather more informed comment; I was well aware "that Black on white crime is treated more harshly, that Black defendants are disproportionately given the death penalty, and so forth", but I was also sure I'd seen studies that suggested "that Black people are hostile to police and the judicial system [as a reasonable response to being disproportionately victimised by it] and thus less likely to convict". However, it seems I may have been confusing them with the other studies you do cite. Either way round, though, it still remains the case that from the point of a prosecutor, racial discrimination would seem a rational tactic.
Anonymous — June 21, 2010
I find that "Race of District Attorneys" chart rather striking, personally - are there no DA's in those states that are a race other than white or black? The composition adds up to exactly 100% in every case. Is there not a single DA in those states who is Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, or any other race? I doubt it--I'm guessing they are all lumped in under "African-American," meaning that any visible minority is "black."
el.j — June 21, 2010
Oh yes, I wasn't disputing with you! And of course it is for that reason Black jurors are excluded. I only wanted to emphasize that, as far as I know, Black jurors haven't been found less likely to convict because that at least might provide some rationale - however thin - for exclusion, whereas exclusion even though Black people have been found equally likely to convict so clearly demonstrates that there is no "reasonable" motive or one even based in reality at all for Black people being excluded other than racism. I do think this is important as it demonstrates the way that racist practices are not based in reality, and are responding to imaginary threats.
Now for my anecdata: I think people underestimate the social/religious conservatism of Black people, in general. I don't have evidence for this outside what I've experienced and read, but I think because Black people sometimes speak out against racism and social injustice, white people often imagine black people to be politically and socially radical. But in fact Black communities are generally religious and often quite authoritarian in structure. My experience within my own Black community has been that while certain young Black males may question the police for example, the vast majority of black people support law enforcement and support strong sentences and so forth. Because the Black community is usually only publicized when protesting I think white people have a skewed idea that Black people all sit around raging about the cops and about society - my experience, however, has been that the response of Black people to crime issues as well as to many others is fairly conservative.
We are doing a series of community justice meetings now actually, and most people believe that the problem is single parent families, lack of church, not enough for kids to do, loss of community structure etc. rather than systematic racism, etc. I myself am what would be called politically radical, and I have to say that I often find more people in agreement with me about the prison system, government injustice, police brutality, the military, etc. outside my community - this is not a criticism of Black people, as there are many reasons why Black people may not have the security, privilege, opportunity, inclination, etc. to activism in the same way, and also that Black people often view family and community structures to be more important than external ones. Obviously these are generalizations, but I do think it's interesting that the perception of Black people is as threat to social structure and order - including the assumption that Black people are against the system - while in my experience I often find us to be quite conservative. This perception is likely influencing things like jury selection.
el.j — June 21, 2010
That last was towards Angelica, BTW.
cøntraba|ançe — June 21, 2010
So, let me see if I have this straight.
Racial discrimination of potential jurors: Bad.
Racial discrimination of potential students: Good.
Racial discrimination of potential employees: Good.
Carla — June 21, 2010
Just a word about the death penalty statistic: Prosecutors don't have to use their preemptory challenges if the potential juror expresses a reluctance to administer the death penalty. If blacks are less likely to support the death penalty, that might account for the disparity. We can debate the merits of the death penalty forever, but striking a juror because they're unwilling to administer the death penalty is a for-cause strike, not preemptory. In short, an unwillingness to administer the law makes one unqualified for jury service.
It seems like this post might be conflating preemptory and for-cause strikes. The article linked at EIJ doesn't say that 8/10 death penalty statistic is the RESULT of preemptory strikes...those are two separate issues. The way it's presented here isn't consistent with the information presented on the EJI page.
S-DUB:SoundsOFF | Satire, News, My Views Are Tha REALEST! — June 22, 2010
[...] Equal Justice Initiative have released a report regarding racial bias in jury [...]
links for 2010-06-22 | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture — June 22, 2010
[...] Racial Bias in Jury Selection The Equal Justice Initiative just released a report about racial bias in jury selection, particularly in the South. I first heard about it on NPR. Racial discrimination in jury selection is illegal, but evidence suggests it’s still quite common, particularly through the use of peremptory challenges (the ability of attorneys to exclude a certain number of potential jurors without having to say why or justify it). The results are striking; for instance, “…in Houston County, Alabama, 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors in death penalty cases” (p. 4 of the report). (tags: via:carleandria racialbias juryselection alabama antiblackbias) [...]
Sadie — June 22, 2010
Sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird all over again to me. So sad that we can't seem to learn the most obvious of lessons.
alawyer — June 22, 2010
I wonder why the use of race-based challenges by prosecutors continues? Prosecutors have a lot of incentives to get high conviction rates and harsh sentences; that's how you get considered a successful prosecutor. If it's "straight up" racism, why hasn't it been eroded by prosecutors' incentives to convict? Is there some set of countervailing incentives?
Or do prosecutors believe black jurors are less willing to convict? If that's correct, are they right?
The answer matters because it influences how to address the problem.
The report also discusses various institutional barriers that lead to lower representation of racial minorities in jury pools, but that is a different issue.
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