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Does Racial Bias Influence Support for Sentencing Juveniles to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole?

Dataset and study materials including only respondents with completion times between 4 and 42 minutes

Full dataset


Principal Investigator(s):

Aneeta Rattan
Stanford University
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Jennifer Eberhardt
Stanford University
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Cynthia Levine
Stanford University
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Carol S. Dweck
Stanford University
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Sample size:1000
Field period: 3/7/2010-3/25/2010


Legal precedent establishes juvenile offenders as inherently less culpable than adult offenders and thus protects juveniles from the most severe of punishments. But how fragile might these protections be? In the present study, simply bringing to mind a Black (vs. White) juvenile offender led participants to view juveniles in general as significantly more similar to adults in their inherent culpability and to express more support for severe sentencing. Indeed, these differences in participants’ perceptions of this foundational legal precedent distinguishing between juveniles and adults accounted for their greater support for severe punishment. These results highlight the fragility of protections for juveniles when race is in play. Furthermore, we suggest that this fragility may have broad implications for how juveniles are seen and treated in the criminal justice system.


We hypothesized that, even when they are presented with the same serious crime, people would see juvenile offenders as less different from adults and worthy of more severe punishments when exposed to an example case that included a Black American as compared with a White American.

Experimental Manipulation:

We manipulated just one word across the two study conditions. In the description of the example recipient of the sentencing option, the juvenile was described as either Black or White (i.e., “a [black/white] male with 17 prior juvenile convictions…”).

Key Dependent Variables:

"To what extent do you support life sentences with no possibility of parole for juveniles when they have been convicted of serious violent crimes (in which no one was killed)? (not at all “1” – extremely “6”)

How much do you believe that juveniles who commit crimes such as these should be considered less blameworthy than an adult who committed the same crime? (juveniles are less blameworthy than adults “1” – juveniles and adults are equally blameworthy “6”)"

Summary of Findings:

We found that participants in the Black prime condition expressed significantly more support for life without parole sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases (M = 4.40, se = .07) than did those in the White prime condition (M = 4.18, se = .09), t(576.29) = 2.12, p < .05, Cohen’s d = .18 (see File S1, Note 4). Next, we examined whether associating the crime with Black Americans would also affect participants’ perceptions of an entire (legal) class of individuals: juveniles. Indeed, we found that in the Black prime condition, participants perceived juveniles as more similar to adults in blameworthiness (M = 4.42, se = .08) than they did in the White prime condition (M = 4.14, se = .09), t(634) = 2.33, p = .02, Cohen’s d = .19 (see Figure 1; see File S1, Note 5). Taken together, these results indicate that the association of a crime with Black (versus White) can affect both policy support and perceptions of juveniles’ culpability relative to adults.


Rattan A, Levine CS, Dweck CS, Eberhardt JL (2012) Race and the Fragility of the Legal Distinction between Juveniles and Adults. PLoS ONE 7(5):e36680.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036680

Rattan, A., Levine, C.S., Eberhardt, J.L., & Dweck, C.S. (2010). Locked up for life: racial bias in juvenile life sentences. Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Biennial Conference.


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