Americans are divided by age and race on the fairness of the justice system, ABA civics survey finds

A new survey released by the ABA on Thursday, April 29, 2021 found stark divisions based on age and race when it comes to believing that there are racial biases built into the rules, procedures and practices of the justice system.

While 45% of white respondents said they agree or strongly agree with that statement, 80% of Black respondents and 63% of Hispanic respondents agreed or strongly agreed.

Additionally, the ABA 2021 Survey of Civic Literacy discovered that more than two-thirds of Americans ages 18-34 believe racial biases exist in the justice system, but only about one-third of Americans age 65 and older do.

The ABA’s third annual survey of civic literacy, which assesses the public’s knowledge about the basics of U.S. democracy, also included questions about issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its results were released as part of Law Day, a national event established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 to recognize the country’s commitment to the rule of law.

“Racial justice and the pandemic are manifestly the two most important social issues that we have all been dealing with in the last year,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said ahead of a Thursday event about the ABA 2021 Survey of Civic Literacy results. “And so, this study is looking at: What does the public think about those issues as they relate to laws and the legal system?”

Refo was joined at the event by moderator Laura Coates, a CNN senior legal analyst, and panelists Roslyn Brock, chairman emeritus of the NAACP National Board of Directors; Bryan Porter, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria, Virginia; and Juan Thomas, vice chair of the ABA’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, to discuss the survey results on racial justice.

“What I find really fascinating and think people are wondering, ‘Well hold on, this was a civic literacy survey, so why are we talking about racial justice and policing?’” Coates said during the conversation. “But what they don’t realize oftentimes is, there is such intersectionality in the idea of civic engagement often being so dictated by who you are in terms of your race, your age, your geographic location, your socioeconomic status.

“That is the prism through which you gauge your civic engagement and how the democracy really applies to you.”

Americans show varying levels of trust in the justice system

In polling 1,000 people nationwide by telephone in March, the survey found views on the justice system varied widely because of race, ethnicity and age.

When asked whether “the nation’s judicial system adheres to the rule of law, under which all individuals are treated equally in the eyes of the law,” 56% of total respondents said they agreed. However, only 41% of Black respondents and 47% of respondents ages 18-34 agreed with the statement.

During their discussion, Coates asked the panel why people of different races and ages may see bias in the justice system at a higher rate than others. In his response, Thomas pointed out that many young people, particularly young people of color, experience law enforcement and the justice system differently than other groups.

“Instead of seeing police officers as protecting the community, they see police officers oftentimes as oppressors or as difficult to deal with, with respect to the community,” he says. “I think that’s obvious based upon what we’re going through right now with the George Floyd murder of last summer.

“These differences are not just because of being taught a certain thing in school, it’s lived experiences in the community that many people who look like you and me suffer from and deal with on a regular and consistent basis.”

Brock added that she was heartened by the young people of all races who came together to speak out against injustice after Floyd’s murder.

“They are talking,” she said. “It’s the older people who are having the conversations that are separating us. That’s why it’s so critical for us to listen to this next generation. I believe they are the ones who are going to move this conversation forward with the other people kicking and screaming, because they see there are more things that bring us together than those things that divide us.”

Among its other data related to racial justice, the survey found:

  • 57% of white respondents, compared to 50% of Hispanic respondents and 43% of Black respondents, support charging juveniles who are younger than 18 as adults for serious crimes.
  • 50% of respondents think “defund the police” means “redirect funding from the police department to essential social services,” while 17% think the phrase means “strip police force of all funding” and 14% said that it equates to “abolish the police force.”
  • 33% of respondents ages 18-34 believe aggressive prosecution is the main factor contributing to mass incarceration rates in the United States, while 43% of respondents age 65 and older believe an increase in crime is the main factor.

Porter, who started his career as a prosecutor in 2001, spoke specifically to the results related to prosecution. He contended that the types of trainings and conversations he has with his colleagues now are vastly different than they were a decade ago.

“When I was a younger prosecutor, we never talked about impact on the communities we were tasked with prosecuting,” he says. “We never talked about treating the people who are charged with crimes as part of the community that we’re sworn to protect. Instead, it was much more of an adversarial vibe. It was much more us versus the defense attorneys, much more of a ‘tough on crime’ ethos.

“As I have progressed and hopefully gotten to be wiser and much older, I really have seen a change. That doesn’t mean we’re anywhere where we need to be, and I also understand change might not be quick enough for some. But that does give me some personal reason for hope that change is going to continue to come.”

Americans’ opinions over COVID-19 requirements differ.

In its data related to pandemic, the ABA 2021 Survey of Civic Literacy shows that 34% of U.S. residents believe employers should be legally permitted to require their employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Its results identified more support for the use of face masks in the workplace. While 78% of those surveyed agreed that employers should be legally permitted to require employees to wear masks while working with others, 79% agreed employers should be legally permitted to refuse service to customers who fail to follow mask requirements.

American public’s civics knowledge shows little change since 2020.

As part of the ABA 2021 Survey of Civic Literacy, respondents were asked 13 multiple-choice questions based on the current U.S. Naturalization Test.

Despite the publicity around the 2020 presidential election and two presidential impeachment trials, the survey’s results show that Americans’ civics knowledge is virtually the same as last year—with two exceptions.

According to its key highlights, 72% of respondents correctly identified the speaker of the House of Representatives as second in line for the presidency this year, compared to 65% in the 2020 survey. Additionally, their knowledge that the right to vote is not in the First Amendment increased to 63% this year from 55% last year.

Most respondents correctly answered basic civics questions. The survey shows that 92% recognized “We the People” as the first three words in the U.S. Constitution and 86% identified the Bill of Rights as its first 10 amendments. It also shows that 86% know the Declaration of Independence declared the 13 colonies’ separation from Great Britain and 84% understand “rule of law” means no one is above the law.

The survey also found that some Americans are unable to identify current government leaders and the rights and responsibilities of citizens:

  • 14% were undecided when asked to name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while an additional 28% identified an incorrect justice.
  • 20% incorrectly believe paying federal income tax is a responsibility only for U.S. citizens.
  • 19% mistakenly think freedom of speech is a right reserved only for U.S. citizens.

Visit the ABA 2021 Survey of Civic Literacy website for complete results.