That Time Everyone Got Mad About Social Justice

  1. Some of the critiques levied against our work were absolutely correct. And guess what? We had already addressed a number of them in our original manuscript. In fact, we were so concerned about them that we repeated the most important caveats and limitations multiple times.
  2. We were told that judges we identified as having racially discriminatory sentencing patterns could not possibly be racially discriminatory. These comments came from people with professional or anecdotal relationships with judges appearing in our data set. There are two issues here. First, anecdotal experience is no way to do analysis. Second, and more substantively, I think the complaint suggests a lack of agreement on language about racism. I believe our critics were claiming that their friend-judges do not display explicit racial animus. This might be true, but is not the point of our study. Racism can arise implicitly from individuals and from structural factors.
  3. Relatedly, we were frequently told that the problem that causes discriminatory outcomes is not judges, but rather, prosecutors’ decisions about plea deals. It may be true that prosecutors offer plea deals differentially by defendant race. But you know what? A judge is more powerful than a prosecutor, and has the power to reject plea deals. I believe that it is ultimately the judge’s responsibility to mitigate racial bias that occurs upstream in the criminal justice process.
  4. Even the most helpful, thoughtful critiques of our work hedged. In particular, one very insightful blog post (this is not sarcasm — it was actually a great post) used the following phrases: “I believe,” “I would not be surprised if,” “I suspect,” (2x) and so forth. This is appropriate, because the author was making some loose statistical analogies related to our work. At the same time, the uncertainty in the critique was mirrored by uncertainty explained in the limitations section of our paper. We put qualifiers on our work, and this critic put qualifiers on his critique. For me, this raises a question about Type I/Type II errors. Is it better to falsely label a fair judge as discriminatory, or is it better to falsely label a discriminatory judge as fair?
  5. One of the most confusing repsonses we received came from an esteemed scholar of sentencing who wrote that “a focus on judges risks distorting our understanding of all the decisions made before a judge actually gets to give a sentence.” I am unsure if his implication is that the sentencing patterns of judges should not be scrutinized, but if it is, I stringently disagree.



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Chad M. Topaz

Chad M. Topaz

Professor, data scientist, applied mathematician, social justice researcher and activist, nonprofit leader. See and