America’s criminal justice system is loaded with latent institutional racism, a new study concludes.
“Disparities in police stops, in prosecutorial charging, and in bail and sentencing decisions reveal that implicit racial bias has penetrated all corners of the criminal justice system,” The Sentencing Project study reported.
“White Americans who associate crime with Blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than Whites with weaker racial associations of crime,” it was reported.
The September 2014 report points to many factors that contribute to what it calls “the severity and selectivity of punishment in the United States.”
Some factors, according to the study, are racial prejudice, conservatism, and crimes that stand out such as high profile, public interest crimes.
“These factors reduce empathetic concern about the hardships of punishment,” the study said.
The study was released in the wake of last year’s coast-to-coast protests and civil disobedience condemning the killing of unarmed Black men by police.
“Whites are more punitive than Blacks and Hispanics even though they (Whites) experience less crime. White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality,” the report said.
“When individuals believe that those who commit crime are similar to them, they more readily reflect on the underlying circumstances of the crime and respond with empathy and mercy,” the report said.
Imputing crime to a particular race, infused with other factors, is a leading cause for the disparate punishment of people of color in the U.S., the study said.
African-Americans and Latinos combined are 30 percent of the general population, it was reported. However, these groups account for 58 percent of the U.S. prison population.
“By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color, racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety,” the report said.
Some studies show that Whites are more likely to break the law when they see that enforcement of the law is racially biased, it was reported.
“Although Black Americans continue to be overrepresented among arrestees, the degree of overrepresentation has been falling for a quarter century,” the report said. “Yet the profile of prisoners has been slow to adjust.”
“By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions toward people of color,
racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety”
This type of racial bias in the criminal justice system “may foster White Americans’ sense of legal immunity,” the report stated. This creates a system where White Americans are more likely to uphold the use of punitive criminal justice measures, as opposed to other social policy tools, to deal with crime.
The study said the killing of racial minorities by police officers and armed civilians is due to their distorted assessments of them as threats.
Unwarranted deaths can sometimes be attributed to unjustified perceptions of a threat, the study suggested.
It cited these examples of “all-too-common flashpoints of the racialization of crime”: the deaths of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant killed by New York City police officers in 1999; Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012; and Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
According to the report, racial minorities have different perceptions of the level of unfairness in the criminal justice system. This dampens community involvement with police and impedes criminal trials.
“In 2013, over two-thirds of African-Americans saw the criminal justice system as biased against Blacks, in contrast to one-quarter of Whites,” it was reported.
The Sentencing Project study said the mass media’s use of the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to reporting crime contributes to negative racial perceptions about who commits crime. “Media representations of crime draw on, and contribute to, racial stereotypes.”
The report said the media reinforces public misconceptions about race and crime by portraying African-Americans and Latinos in a different light than Whites. It points to newspapers and television programs over-representing racial minorities as crime suspects, whereas Whites are typically depicted as crime victims.
“This includes a tendency…to exaggerate rates of Black offending and White victimization and to depict Black suspects in a less favorable light than Whites. Given that the public widely relies on mass media as its source of knowledge about crime and crime policy, these disparities have important consequences,” the report said.
“The media, policymakers, and criminal justice practitioners can implement several proven interventions to sever associations of crime with race, and temper their impact,” The Sentencing Project reported. “Policymakers can curb excessive incarceration and develop policies to reduce disparities in sentencing and crime rates.”
All stakeholders, including the mass media, researchers, policymakers, and criminal justice practitioners, can use proven methods to reduce negative racial perceptions of crime, the report concluded. Policymakers, it was recommended, should identify and modify race neutral policies that have been shown to have a disparate racial impact.
“Policymakers are increasingly aware that branding people…harms public safety and wastes public funds.”