Does Race or Gender Influence Professional Judgement?

Does race or gender influence decision-making among members of the most respected professions? Several recent, high-profile studies conclude that, yes, even scientists, doctors, and judges are vulnerable to such unconscious bias.

In a recent, widely discussed study, Yale researchers surveying science professors at various U.S. universities found significant, widespread, and unintended bias against female students.

The Atlantic Wire summarizes the findings:

A team led by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin asked 127 professors of biology, chemistry, and physics at major research universities to rate the competency, hireability, and their own willingness to mentor of a grad school applicant on a scale of 1 to 7. Every professor got the same application except for one small difference: sometimes the aspiring scientist was named 'John' and sometimes 'Jennifer.' Faculty -- both men and women -- rated the male student higher for everything.

A large body of research has also shown that physicians are vulnerable to unconscious bias on the basis of gender and race. Such unintentional prejudice can lead doctors to under-treat certain patients.

The Huffington Post reports:

In a study published in a March issue of the American Journal of Public Health researchers found that two-thirds of doctors harbored 'unconscious' racial biases toward patients. When those biases were present, researchers found that doctors tended to dominate conversations with African-American patients, pay less attention to their personal and psychosocial needs and make patients feel less involved in making decisions about their health.

And now, in an article forthcoming the Journal of Legal Studies, "Do Judges Vary In Their Treatment of Race?" the authors deal with the influence of race in judicial sentencing practices. Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Harvard University examined all felony cases adjudicated in the Cook County Criminal Court from 1995-2001. They find that race "appears to play a role in judicial decision-making," which variation "suggests that courtroom outcomes may not be race blind."

Further, they conclude: "This may be one source of the substantial overpopulation of African-Americans in the prison population. Understanding the sources of variation in the criminal justice system is an important first step toward reducing disparities of various kinds."

I recently attended a workshop of this article at the University of Chicago. There, law and economics giants Judge Richard Posner, Professor William Landes, and Professor Lee Epstein joined Professor Randolph Stone (former Public Defender of Cook County) and others, and vigorously discussed this study with co-author Professor David Abrams. This was an invaluable opportunity to understand research that directly relates to our justice system. Here is what I learned:

Over the course of over 150,000 felony cases, the court sentenced 51 percent of black defendants to incarceration (prison or jail), compared with 38 percent of white defendants. This difference is on par with national statistics.

But the authors arrived at two additional conclusions, both of which represented unique contributions to the study of racial disparity within the criminal justice system.

First, the authors found judges varied in the degree of sentencing disparity. Specifically, judges showing the least disparity incarcerated black defendants at a rate of 40 percent compared with 35 percent of white defendants; judges showing the most disparity incarcerated 68 percent of black defendants but only 40 percent of white defendants.

Second, they found that the more harsh a judge tended to be -- that is, the more likely he or she was to incarcerate at all -- the more likely he or she was to incarcerate black defendants relative to white defendants.

Notably, sentencing length did not vary significantly by judge or by race. This is likely because Illinois judges are constrained by sentencing guidelines.

These findings are consistent with prior research proving racial bias in justice systems locally and nationally. A state-funded, non-partisan commission recently investigated the issue of racial disparity in the Illinois justice system. The Commission's 2010 report found that black males in Illinois are much more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and ultimately incarcerated for low-level drug crimes than their white counterparts.

The study also found that black defendants in Illinois are eight times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for possessing drugs -- a finding especially relevant to judicial sentencing disparity.

Then, last year, the Chicago Reader published "The Grass Gap," exposing racial disparity in Chicago's marijuana policy:

The ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession in Chicago is 15 to 1, according to a Reader analysis of police and court data. And by the time the cases make their way through the court system, the gap widens even further: the ratio among those who plead or are found guilty is 40 to 1.

Here's another way to look at it: almost 9 of every 10 people who end up guilty of possessing marijuana in Chicago -- 86 percent, to be precise -- are black men.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health rebuts one common explanation for disproportionate treatment -- that black people use drugs at a higher rate than white people. This federally funded, annually conducted survey has consistently found that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at comparable rates.

So now we know: academics, doctors, and judges are not immune to harmful biases. But given that the bias is unintentional and unconscious even, what can be done to eliminate it?

Academics are taking the first step by detecting bias and disparity through careful studies of large datasets.

Next, advocates like Chicago Appleseed are calling the public's attention to these studies, explaining the results, and saying why they matter.

We can also point out the work of other advocates offering solutions. The Sentencing Project has an entire manual on how to reduce racial bias in the justice system, and the Disproportionate Justice Impact Study tailors recommendations to Illinois.

Penn Law Professor David Abrams, co-author of the study of judicial decisions, has the simplest advice of all: tell the decision-makers -- who are often unaware or resistant to the idea of their own biases.

Self-awareness, it turns out, goes a long way. The New York Times reports on a study of physicians, which revealed under-treatment of black patients. Some of the doctor-participants guessed that the study was testing racial bias. Unlike nearly all of their peers, those doctors showed no bias in their treatment decisions.

After academics study an issue and advocates relay their findings, policymakers must respond. In light of the numerous studies of our criminal justice system, it is clear that we need race-blind strategies to crime that will helping people of all races, and the communities in which they live. Here are a few such strategies, which have been adopted successfully in cities across the nation: a Diversion Division within the Circuit Court, early assessment of defendants leading to treatment and not jail, better use of data, and collaboration among the stakeholders.

Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice