Criminal Justice

Want to change harsh crime policies? Emphasizing racial disparities can backfire, study says


Want to persuade white voters that harsh criminal justice policies need to be changed? Statistics indicating that blacks are overrepresented in the prison population probably won’t help your cause, a new study suggests.

Researchers set out to study the relationship between perceived racial disparities in prisons and acceptance of punitive policies. Their findings: White residents in New York City and San Francisco who were led to believe there was a greater proportion of African-Americans in prison were more likely to accept harsh criminal justice policies. Slate covered the study (PDF) by psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University.

In the first experiment, 62 white registered voters in the San Francisco Bay area were recruited to answer questions about social issues. The voters were shown 80 mug shots of prisoners, with the ratio of black to white prisoners manipulated to make racial disparities appear more or less extreme. In the “less black” variation, 25 percent of the photos were of black inmates, about the percentage of blacks in California’s prisons, In the “more black” variation, 45 percent of the photos were of black inmates, about the percentage of black inmates incarcerated under California’s three-strikes law.

Next, the voters were told about the three-strikes law and a petition to amend it. The voters were then asked to sign such a petition. Nearly 52 percent of the voters who saw the “less black” portrayal of the prison population signed the petition, compared to only 27 percent of the voters who saw the “more black” portrayal.

In the second experiment, researchers recruited 164 white citizens in New York City and gave them statistics about the percentage of white and black inmates. In the “more black” variation, the study subjects were told the prison population was about 60.3 percent black and 11.8 percent white. In the “less black” variation, the study subjects were told the prison population was 40.3 percent black and 31.8 percent white.

Next, the study subjects were told about a judge’s ruling finding that New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional. Then the subjects were asked whether they would have signed a petition to end the stop-and-frisk program. In the “more black” variation, only 12.05 percent of study subjects said they would sign the petition, compared with 33.33 percent in the “less black” variation.

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie calls the findings “disheartening” in his article on the study.

“The dynamic between race, crime and criminal justice reform is similar,” he writes. “Tell people that blacks are overpoliced and over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes a backfire effect as people follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments.”

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