Tufts University

Acting As Judge and Jury

Portney and SommersTufts' Sam Sommers and Kent Portney share a devotion to innovative research and teaching about the roles race and gender play in the criminal justice system.

Sitting in Hartford Superior Court one afternoon in 1976, Kent Portney witnessed something that shocked him.

"In the morning, there was a case that came before the judge, and it involved grand larceny," says Portney, a professor of political science. A bank vice president had embezzled nearly $50,000. "The judge sentenced him to, I believe, five years' probation, and ordered him to repay the money that he embezzled.

"In the early afternoon," Portney continues, "another case came before the same judge in the same court—a single mother, an African-American woman, who was convicted of welfare fraud. She had failed to report income for a five-year period of time, and when you added it all up, it was an amount that qualified for grand larceny. The judge sentenced her to three years in prison for that crime." That's when Portney's interest in studying variations in criminal sentencing was born.

"The juxtaposition between those two cases slapped me in the face," says Portney, who at the time was studying criminal sentencing for the Connecticut judicial department. "That's what got me interested in looking at the factor influencing judges' decisions about sentences, and what role race and socioeconomic status and other characteristics play in that whole process."

Like Portney, assistant professor of psychology Sam Sommers studies decision-making in the criminal justice system. But, as opposed to studying the way a judge sentences a convicted defendant, Sommers explores how race and racial norms influence jury deliberations and decisions at both the group and individual level.

"The implications are broader than the legal system," says Sommers, who also researches the effect of gender on group decisions and interactions. "On a college campus, in the workplace environment, in pretty much any setting where you see groups, issues of racial composition and diversity are important questions."

Since his arrival at Tufts in the fall of 2003, Sommers has turned the spotlight on those issues. He spearheaded the creation of the University's Diversity & Cognition Colloquium Series, which advances discussion and research about questions related to culture, diversity, gender and race.

"And that's precisely the thing that bridges our two areas of research, that interest in race and gender," Portney says. Indeed, though Portney and Sommers approach the criminal justice system from different vantage points, their views are often similar. "In both of our cases, what's interesting is the idea that in a lot of these instances, people don't know that they're being influenced by these variables," Sommers says, as Portney nods in agreement.

"If you ask [most people], 'Why did you make this decision?,' they're not going to cite race; they're not going to cite gender... probably because they really don't even realize it, on some level."

— Sam Sommers

"Most people, in Kent's studies and in my studies, if you ask them, 'Why did you make this decision?,' they're not going to cite race; they're not going to cite gender," Sommers continues. "They're not going to say, 'The racial makeup of this group affected me.' That may be because they don't want to say that, but it's probably because they really don't even realize it, on some level."

"Stated another way, people sometimes think that you have to be a racist to produce a racist result or a biased result," says Portney. "And in fact, I think both of our research indicates that you don't have to be racist to still, in the aggregate, produce a biased result to the disfavor of, say, an African-American or Hispanic person in the criminal justice system."

Overcoming preconceived ideas

Reaching such findings wouldn't be possible, both professors say, without student involvement.

"Over the years I found that students had a lot of trouble grasping some of the issues of variability in criminal sentencing," says Portney, who has received the American Political Science Association's Rowman and Littlefield Award for Innovative Teaching in Political Science. "It seemed like students were coming into class with a lot of preconceived ideas, and nothing that we could do with traditional teaching methods seemed to help them overcome that."

So Portney took matters into his own hands. Along with Northwestern University's Jerry Goldman, he came up with a sentencing simulation to use in class called Crime and Punishment.

"[Students] play the role of the judge and make the sentencing decisions, but we experimentally vary the race and gender of the defendant across the class," says Portney, who uses the computer-based multimedia simulation in his judicial politics class. "We show them the results when they're done, and then use that as a forum for a discussion about how race and gender differences are produced."

The simulation, Portney and Goldman found, did help students grasp the principles at hand. "There's a lot of variation in criminal sentencing and you have to understand the variation," explains Portney. "Students come into class with an expectation that there is a one way that it's done. The simulation makes it abundantly clear to them that there's a wide range of variation and each of the factors that they thought was the most important or the only factor that matters is not necessarily so."

Portney and Sommers

Sam Sommers and Kent Portney

Last semester, he says, philosophy professors Erin Kelly and Lionel McPherson used the simulation in their ethics and law class. Discussions are also under way for the simulation to be integrated into annual sensitivity training for Massachusetts judges, to help them evaluate their approaches to sentencing.

Just as Portney's interactive approach to studying criminal sentencing is relatively rare, Sommers' approach to jury research is uncommon within the field. Most researchers studying the subject, Sommers says, tend to look at actual cases and to conduct post-trial interviews with real jurors. With such an approach, he points out, it's very difficult to control for enough variables to determine cause and effect, and people are often reluctant to admit—or unaware of—the ways race and gender have influenced their decisions.

"I do studies where we as the researchers manipulate something in the situation. For example, we might bring a bunch of groups into the laboratory as mock juries [and] show them all the same trial video, but the only difference between the different groups is their racial composition," Sommers says.

In his research on the individual juror, Sommers found that in racially charged cases, white jurors were not affected by the defendant's race. However, in cases such as robbery or drug possession where race was not a factor in the actual crime, evidence of bias by white jurors surfaced.

"Race does affect people's judgments in a variety of contexts, even in the legal system. And often it has that kind of influence when you least expect it to."

— Sam Sommers

"It's somewhat counterintuitive to what many people in the legal system might predict, but it's pretty consistent with what psychologists suggest," he explains. "Race does affect people's judgments in a variety of contexts, even in the legal system. And often it has that kind of influence when you least expect it to."

But he's aware that his experimental approach to the subject has limitations, too—and that as such, it's necessary to integrate it with interviews of actual jurors and analyses of real cases in order to reach the most conclusive results.

"There's something different, admittedly, about having people make hypothetical decisions: if the people in my study decide to vote 'guilty,' they're not actually going to send someone to prison, and Kent's participants aren't actually going to sentence someone," Sommers says. "It's not that [the experimental approach] is a better way; it's a different way to answer these kinds of questions, and one that not a lot of people are doing."

There are also few people who have conducted in-depth examinations of the role gender plays in sentencing—not just the gender of the defendant, but also of the judge. Portney has sought to remedy that dearth of research through his simulation, and he's found a persistent pattern while looking at "the interaction effect" between the gender of the student judge and the gender of the defendant.

"What we discover is of course there's a gender difference. Female defendants are treated less harshly," he says. But the overall gap, it turns out, is not the result of judges of both genders taking a uniformly lighter hand with female defendants.

"Working with [undergraduates], seeing them understand and grow with that research, and hearing from them after they graduate—that's the most rewarding part."

— Kent Portney

"When you look at how the male students sentence female defendants, it's exactly the same as how they sentenced the male defendants," Portney says. "It's female students who sentence female defendants who are very, very lenient, and that's what's responsible for producing the gender differences."

Both Portney and Sommers say that Tufts has provided them with unique opportunities to blend their research and teaching.

"It's the reason I wanted to be a faculty member at a school like Tufts. It's a school that wants you, as a faculty member, to be a productive and renowned researcher, but also one who values teaching," says Sommers. "The students at Tufts are obviously first-rate, and our ability as faculty members to get them involved in research is a unique and terrific thing about being at Tufts."

"Over the years, I think I've probably worked with around 1,000 different undergraduates in my research," Portney adds. "Working with them, seeing them understand and grow with that research, and hearing from them after they graduate about how they remember the experiences fondly—that's the most rewarding part."

As for their research, the Tufts professors are gratified to be working on something they believe is of great societal importance.

"Even though we would like to think that we're not influenced by race or gender when we interact with people or when we make decisions, we are," says Sommers. "There's no way to address that, to deal with that, other than to study it directly and talk about it."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently editor of The Tufts Daily, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at the July 2004 Democratic National Convention. A songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photos by Zara Tzanev

This story originally ran on Jan. 30, 2006.