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Race and Justice

The intersections of the criminal justice system, and racial disparities in the United States.

The American criminal justice system has historically been heavily influenced by race and racial bias at all levels. One level of the system that has been getting a lot of attention lately is the courts, specifically outcomes of certain high-profile cases involving people of different races. Courts have the power to determine if an actual crime was committed, meaning they decide if an action was justifiable or not. The Society Pages and PBS both released articles discussing data on homicides where a court had to make that decision. Each article includes information on differences between homicide outcomes, but specifically present race as an important factor for them.

Lisa Wade wrote the article for The Society Pages titled “Stand Your Ground Increases Racial Bias in ‘Justifiable Homicide’ Trials.” Her article is about how the stand your ground statute increases the likelihood that homicides will be ruled justifiable. She separates states into stand your ground, and non-stand your ground, and compares statistics on their different rates of case outcomes ending up justifiable, or not justifiable. Then, she elaborates on the data to present numbers that offer information on how race also affects the case outcomes. Sarah Childress’ article for PBS is on the same topic, and sites the same study as Wade, but in more detail, and with new information added. Childress’ article includes statistics on the number of murders in certain states, and numbers on specific kinds of homicides, separated by racial information provided. The study that both articles cite presents a relationship between race, stand your ground laws, and trial outcomes.

Both sites take most of their statistics from a study done by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. From his affiliation with a group that deals with justice policy, he is a credible source for information on statistics that influence policy in the justice system. Wade’s article also sites ProPublica.org for the information that more than 20 states have stand your ground laws. Childress’ article cites the National Conference of State Legislatures to cite that same piece of information. Her article also cites a study done by researchers at Texas A&M University. Each source the articles use is scholarly, and worthy of releasing information on the topic of homicides and court outcomes.

Childress’ article included a lot more detailed information about Roman’s study than Wade’s did. Her Society Pages article says that in stand your ground states, “13.6 percent of homicides were ruled justifiable; in non-SYG states, only 7.2 percent were deemed as such.” Later in the article, Wade gets into specifics, but only for Roman’s second evaluation of his findings, so the initial analysis was still too vague. Just because a state has stand your ground laws, it doesn’t mean they were used in the specific homicides that were recorded, so some of those cases could have had nothing to do with SYG, so that was problematic for Wade’s article. Childress’ article says the homicides were narrowed down to ones with a single shooter, and a single victim, both being strangers, so it was more specific. However, it also says that the rates of murder increased by 8 percent in states with stand your ground statutes between the years 2000-2009. Those murders may have been effected by an intervening or confounding variable, but the article does not include any information on a standard error or control variable. The article also does not say in the data if the increase happened specifically in each state after the stand your ground laws were enacted, so there is too much missing information from the study that produced those numbers.

Wade and Childress’ articles both discuss different sorts of variables. They both include the bar graph of the three categorical variables the authors are discussing: race, stand your ground statutes, and the case outcome. From the study they share by John Roman, they both also discuss race as the confounding variable that comes before the state’s stand your ground laws, and the outcome of trials. Childress’ article details how Roman controlled for multiple variables, including “the races of the victim and the shooter, whether they were strangers, whether they involved a firearm, and whether the murders were in stand your ground states.” The articles combined, although one being more thorough than the other, are both making the same statement. They use statistical analysis to say that race already makes the homicide more likely to be justifiable when it is a white person killing a black person, but stand your ground statutes make it even more likely that the case will be ruled justifiable. So, race as a factor in the rulings has an amplified effect with stand your ground statutes.

Court cases are decided by juries, which already puts non-whites at a disadvantage, because most of the jury is likely to be white. On top of that, stereotypes about black people make them more likely to be seen as criminals. Due to racial profiling and prejudice established in the criminal justice system, blacks are less likely to receive fair treatment, and whites are more likely to receive privileged treatment. Wade and Childress’ articles describe in numbers how a white person is more likely to be considered justified in killing a black person than vice-versa, or if it was a black-on-black crime, using race as a confounding variable. Then, they use stand your ground laws as a third variable to show how it amplifies the effects of race in court outcomes. The articles address part of why stand your ground laws are controversial. They are contentious, because they are another justice system policy that appears to be unfairly targeting those of a specific race, and favoring those of another.