A study by two Arkansas researchers shows racial differences in criminal convictions for murders, which they said is the result of unintended bias.
Adjoa Aiyetoro, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law, and Dr. Tara DeJohn with the UALR School of Social Work presented their results to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force Monday (Nov. 30).
The study involved 538 Arkansas prisoners of the 1,033 convicted of capital or first degree murder as of the spring of 2013. About half of those studied were white and half were black. Of those convicted of capital murder, 55% were black and 44% were white. Of those convicted of first degree murder, 44% were black and 54% were white.
The two found that 71% of those convicted of capital murder and who received the death penalty were black, while 29% were white. Meanwhile, 54% of those convicted of capital murder and receiving life without parole were black, while 45% were white.
DeJohn said in an interview that if race were not a factor, there should not be as big a racial disparity in the percentage of convicts receiving death versus those receiving life without parole.
The same pattern held up among those convicted of first degree murder, a lesser charge. Of those receiving life without parole, 71% were black and 29% were white. Of those receiving life with parole, 44% were black and 54% were white.
DeJohn said the researchers looked at a variety of factors – number of victims, reported relationship, murder weapon, prior convictions and even military history. Race was the determining difference. The two said in the report they were 99% certain that the relationships between race and charge and race and length of sentence did not exist by chance.
The two researchers said that about 80% of defendants were defended by public defenders regardless of race. Slightly over half of the sentences were handed down by juries instead of judges. DeJohn said that, for the “vast majority,” it was their first arrest or conviction.
Aiyetoro said the results can’t be taken personally and the data is caused by implicit, unintended bias.
“It is part of our historical grounding in the United States. We don’t escape it,” she said.
The report recommends policymakers have implicit bias training. She said California has implicit bias training for employees within the criminal justice system.