Researchers used implicit association tests to gauge racial attitudes and observe how people perceived misdemeanor or felony acts. The results were startling. When comparing felony acts by whites, blacks, and Latinos, respondents overestimated black boys’ ages by 4.53 years. Police officers, who were also included in the pool of participants, overestimated their ages by 4.59 years. To put this in more concrete terms, when participants saw a 14 year-old African American boy, they perceived him as an 18 to 19-year-old adult. And the effect of this was to deny the presumption of innocence—after all, adults are seen as fully responsible for their actions.
Philip Bump puts the study in context:
In 2012, data from the Department of Education revealed that black students were far more likely than white students to face harsh discipline following infractions at school than student of other races. That sort of uneven system of discipline prompted the Obama administration to call for zero-tolerance policies to be dropped. If this study is any guide — and it’s only one study, of course — the tendency to give white kids the presumption of innocence and youth that isn’t afforded to black students might be one of the reasons for that discrepancy.
(Figure: “Officers’ average age estimation accuracy for child suspects of different races.”)