Assignment: Write an essay discussing how a trial by jury is a small-scale example of social constructionism.
Social construction is the frame through which society views an idea. It could be the idea of a crime (for example, drug abuse is a socially constructed crime not an inherent crime) or the idea of an event (for example, the beating of Rodney King as police brutality instead of necessary to protect the officers). Nothing is black-and-white, there are many different ways to view a situation.
Juries are selected to be a group of peers – this is what our justice system is based off of. If an objective peer would do the same thing in the same situation, perhaps you’ll be acquitted. However, the peer-based system is flawed.
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Legal studies professor Hiroshi Fukurai wrote about the peer trial being a detriment to justice, giving the example of Ku Klux Klansman trials shortly after the Civil War. These men were tried for murder and torture of abolitionists and escaped slaves, and many were found not-guilty by a jury of white Republican males (Fukurai 1999).
The social construction of the era said that slaves (even newly freed) were no better than animals – certainly not intelligent human beings like the former plantation owners. Therefore, murdering a black man was not considered serious by a jury of peers.
In much the same vein, other social constructions can make an allegation not appear as serious as it perhaps should be. For example, the socially constructed idea that a woman wearing a short dress is promiscuous can lead to a rapist not getting the punishment he might deserve had she been wearing a nun’s habit instead.
Socially constructed ideas about age also factor into the prejudice of a jury. As long a jury is composed of humans, there will be prejudices – even if only subconsciously. A really old or really young person being involved in the crime – as the defendant or the accuser – can skew the ideas of what justice should look like in that case.
Is social construction always a bad thing? Perhaps the socialization to look on an alcoholic as someone with a disease gives juries the space to allow them a second chance at life after treatment instead of simply punished. Or, perhaps social constructions allow things to continue with more severity than society should allow because it’s the politically correct thing to do.
Resource: Fukurai, H. (1999). Social de-construction of race and affirmative action in jury selection. La Raza Law Journal, 11(17).