Coming on the heels of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, a new report from The Sentencing Project reveals that racial perceptions of crime are a key cause of the severity of punishment in the United States. The report synthesizes two decades of research demonstrating that white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are related to their support for punitive policies that disproportionately impact people of color.
The report, Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, presents survey research, experiments, and studies of case outcomes revealing that white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20-30%.
“Racial misconceptions about crime trigger biased reactions even among people who support racial equality,” stated Nazgol Ghandnoosh, research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the report’s author. “Unless we tackle these issues head-on, we’ll continue to have more Fergusons and a criminal justice system that’s on overdrive.”
Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies than whites with weaker racial associations of crime. This helps to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Latinos even though they are less likely to be victims of crime. In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment.
The report recommends proven interventions for the media, policymakers, and criminal justice professionals to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system. These include addressing disparities in crime reporting, reducing the severity and disparate impact of criminal sentencing, and tackling racial bias in the formal policies and discretionary decisions of criminal justice practitioners.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy.