In cases of ideologically-motivated violent plots, American courts hand down sentences to those who are perceived to be Muslim that are four times longer than non-Muslims involved in similar cases.
According to a new study, this disproportionality carries over into the court of public opinion too. Cases of attempted violence by Muslims received 7 1/2 times more coverage from major media outlets, while successful plots were covered twice as much.
These findings are contained in a new report, titled “Equal Treatment? Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States,” released on Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, or ISPU.
The report highlights glaring discrepancies in the way the judicial system and media treat such acts, depending on the background of the suspected perpetrator.
“The findings of this report build and expand on existing research, and provides quantitative backing to many people’s instinctual perceptions of what has been going on in the media and in our legal system,” said Kumar Rao, a fellow at ISPU and one of the co-authors of the report.
“As it relates to acts of ideological violence, there is, frankly, a double standard in how perpetrators are described in the media, as well as how they are treated in the courts.”
When comparing highly similar cases in terms of intended harm, the researchers found staggering disparities in the way cases were treated in the courts. In cases involving Muslim defendants, the study found that prosecutors sought three times longer sentences than they did in comparable cases involving non-Muslim defendants, seeking an average of 230 months in prison, compared to 76 months.
Upon conviction, the sentences that Muslim defendants received were, on average, 211 months long, four times longer than the average 53-month sentences of non-Muslim defendants.
Law enforcement also used very different tactics in cases involving Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators. In two-thirds of convicted plots involving Muslims, the means to actually commit the crime, such as explosives or weaponry, were in fact provided by undercover informants acting on behalf of the government. But only roughly 16 percent of investigations involving non-Muslim perpetrators utilised this controversial tactic, which critics have blamed for effectively manufacturing criminal cases.
Media scrutiny of cases involving Muslim defendants has been similarly unbalanced over the years, according to the report. The ISPU researchers analysed coverage by the New York Times and the Washington Post from 2002 to 2015, finding that foiled cases of ideologically motivated violence involving Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 770 percent more coverage than similar cases involving non-Muslims, while completed violent acts were covered twice as much.
This increased media attention also appeared to be helped along by government efforts to promote awareness of some cases rather than others. The ISPU study found that the Justice Department was, on average, six times more likely to issue press releases about foiled plots of violence involving Muslims than non-Muslims.
“At heart, there is a question here of what we as a society deem threatening, and what we as a society are afraid of. What you often find is that when a crime is committed by a member of the dominant, privileged group in any society, it’s excused as an aberration, while crimes committed by members of an out-group are pathologised toward that group as a whole,” said Dalia Mogahed, the director of research at ISPU.
“This implicit bias finds its way into all our institutions, including courtrooms and the media. It’s a self-perpetuating problem, and until we address it and stop making excuses, it’s not going to change.”