It’s the Government’s Say (Part 2): On the Topic of ‘Other Status’

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

It’s the Government’s Say (Part 2): On the Topic of ‘Other Status’

Emily Ashner

When coding for the case of Abdirizak Haji Raghe Wehelie, a federal contractor for the FBI and worked as a linguist translating communications captured by court-authorized surveillance of a suspect in a terrorism investigation, the DOJ released his middle name as “Jaji”, likely on accident, but for those who know Ararbic this has a very a different definition. While this is not a major issue, there are ways the government utilizes Muslim and Arab names and references that influences workers within the government and citizens.

The Institute for Policy and Understanding released statistics that showed the severity differences between Muslims and non-muslim perpetrators who committed the same crime.1 These statistics show that Muslims receive a severe punishment 83% of the time while non-muslim only 17%. Further, average prison sentences are four times higher if the perpetrator is perceived to be Muslim. This is why in the Prosecution Project we code for “other status.” The codebook defines this status if they meet any of the following: Does the defendant have a name not readily understood as European?; Is the defendant Muslim or a Muslim convert?; Is the defendant an immigrant from a non-Western/European country?

Clearly, the way government officials view perpetrators has an extreme effect on how they are sentenced. However, the way this information is presented also has incredible implicit bias effects on citizens, who are potential jury members. According to a study on implicit attitudes towards Arab-muslims, participants showed an implicit negative attitude towards Arab-muslims over both whites and blacks.2 Interestingly, prejudice could be moderated if the participants were exposed to positive values of Arab-muslims first.

There is a wide understanding in the negative role the media can play, but government documents that immediately label a person’s race or religion has clear effects on attitudes. Understanding the availability heuristic, the tendency to apply the group first thought of when  a statement is seen or heard, can be important in conscious understanding of remaining unbiased. Once again, our process for the project is quite objective so coding is not affected, but is important to consider when thinking about how we can apply the results of our coding and other similar projects to mediate the discriminatory nature of justice system sentencing.


  1. Rao, Kumar, Carey Shenkman, Khwaja Ahmed, Hasher Nisar, Dalia Mogahed, Sarrah Bugageila, Katherine Coplen, and Katie Grimes. “Equal Treatment? Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States.” Washington, DC: Institute for Social Policy & Understanding, April 2018.
  2. Park, Jaihyun, Karla Felix, and Grace Lee. 2007. “Implicit Attitudes towards Arab-Muslims and the Moderating Effects of Social Information.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 29 (1): 35–45. doi:10.1080/01973530701330942.

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