The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Hidden Brain Puzzle: Caregivers Are Less Likely to Get Prison Time

Caregiving roles affect prison sentencing.

A host of extraneous factors have been known to affect the sentencing decisions of judges in the United States. New research shows that having children and being seen to be good providers for them benefits most defendants and earns them lighter prison sentences.

I recently posted this puzzle on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page.

Which of the following statements are true?
A. Men are less likely to receive jail time from a suburban judge than a rural judge
B. Women are less likely to receive jail time from a black judge than a white judge
C. Black men are less likely to receive jail time if they have fathered children
D. White men are less likely to receive long sentences iif they are “family men”

The answer is … ALL of the above.

I based this puzzle on new research by Tina L. Freiburger, who found in a paper she published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law that “defendants who were depicted as performing caretaker roles had a significantly decreased likelihood of incarceration. Further analysis found that the reduction in likelihood of incarceration for being a caretaker was larger for males than for females. Examination of the interaction of familial role with race found that familial role equally reduced the likelihood of incarceration for black and white females.”

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The study raises some interesting questions. You could make the argument that it makes societal sense to give reduced jail time to defendants who are family caregivers, because otherwise, the state will end up bearing the burden of some or all of that caregiving (and likely do a worse job.) On the other hand, you could make the argument that it is unfair to reduce a defendant’s prison sentence merely because he or she happened to be a parent. Why should the childless defendant be treated more harshly than the defendant who is a mom or a dad?

Which view do you espouse — and why?

Tell your friends about this puzzle by clicking on the SUGGEST TO FRIENDS link at The Hidden Brain’s Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/hiddenbrain

Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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