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The Impact of Race on Court Decisions

The process of considering the guilty verdict for the defendant, as well as the type and severity of punishment, are among the most important issues in law. Since the first attempts to study racial discrimination in the US courts, the analysis of judges’ decisions has become a major topic for research. The reason for this is that it also helps to examine the impact of discriminatory stereotypes in case law. Different scholars have developed a theory that there is a deep connection between race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, citizenship of the defendant, and the severity of court decisions. The main question is whether white people and people of color, women and men, rich and poor, young and old, receive the same punishment for the same crime.

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Officially, the law prohibits any type of racial and national discrimination in the American legal system; however, in practice, an apparent problem of injustice arises. An analysis of the latest researches reveals the main aspects of racial discrimination in sentencing the death penalty. For instance, Petersen (2017) notes that “homicides with Black and Latino victims are less likely to result in a death penalty–eligible offense” (p. 26). In addition, the victim’s race also plays a major role in a prosecutor’s charging decision. As an example, researchers state that offenders in cases where the victims were Latinos are less likely to get a harsh punishment (Petersen, 2017). For this reason, it would be safe to assume that the races of the victim and of the convicted are frequently taken into account by judges, which often makes the decisions unfair.

There is an apparent need for further research to understand whether the fault is in stereotypes or in the greater inclination of the black population to commit crimes. As a counter-argument to such prejudice, several scholars provide data on the number of criminal offenses conducted by people of different races. For example, the analysis of recidivist cases by Yang (2015) indicates that relapse rates are higher “among non-white offenders, offenders with more extensive criminal histories and lower educational attainment” (p. 85). However, this fact can also be connected with the overwhelming majority of white people among federal and state prosecutors. Nevertheless, a major question about the reason for such biases still remains.

Moreover, the race of the participants is not the only factor that negatively influences the decision. Social status and gender also have a significant impact. In this case, many pregnant women who have previously struggled with drugs run the risk of getting harsher punishment. According to Ocen (2017), pregnant women struggling with “addiction, poverty, or mental illness, receive the message that they can no longer turn to hospitals or social service agencies for help” (p. 1222). They are afraid of being arrested at those facilities and, for this reason, do not seek help.

In conclusion, it would appear that there is a number of different elements that determine the prosecutor’s charging decisions. Due to biases, the majority of the court sentences are unfair to people of color. In addition, pregnant women also often receive severe punishments, and that is why they are reluctant to approach the facilities where they are supposed to acquire help. These findings suggest that a problem of discrimination in the American justice system still remains and needs further research.


Ocen, P. A. (2017). Birthing injustice: Pregnancy as a status offense. The George Washington Law Review, 85, 1163-1223.

Petersen, N. (2017). Examining the sources of racial bias in potentially capital cases: A case study of police and prosecutorial discretion. Race and Justice, 7(1), 7-34. Web.

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Yang, C. S. (2015). Free at last? Judicial discretion and racial disparities in federal sentencing. The Journal of Legal Studies, 44(1), 75-111. Web.

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