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Racial Disparity in the Justice System
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MULTICULTURAL DIVERSITY

 

 

Racial Disparity in the Justice System: Moving Forward for Youth

 

 

 

Anna Abate
Sam Houston State University
Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student

The deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and many more have (most recently) prompted numerous concerns of police bias against Black and minority individuals.  In fact, there has been a considerable amount of research on criminal justice decision-making in recent decades, and several researchers have investigated the extent to which offender race plays a role in criminal justice decision-making (Wu, 2016).  It is well documented that racial/ethnic groups are differentially involved in the justice system (McNulty & Bellair, 2003), and higher rates of incarceration of adult Black Americans than White Americans has led to research regarding racial differences within the legal system, specifically racial biases (Rattan, Levine, Dweck, & Eberhardt, 2012). 

Offender and defendant race and ethnicity has been found to play a significant role in criminal justice decision-making.  For instance, research has found that Black and Hispanic males are significantly more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than similarly situated White males (Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2006). Research analyzing statewide sentencing outcomes in Pennsylvania for 1989-1992 found that young, Black males were sentenced more harshly than any other group and that race was most influential in the sentencing decisions of younger rather than older males (Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998). 


As many arrests in the United States do not go beyond the charging phase or even to sentencing in front of judges or juries, research has also been conducted to examine the extent to which an offender’s race affects prosecutorial decisions.  Overall, an offender’s race and ethnicity was found to play a significant role in prosecutors’ decisions to file a charge or pursue a full prosecution (Wu, 2016).  More specifically, Black and Hispanic offenders faced greater odds of being charged or fully prosecuted than White offenders (Wu, 2016).  These differences are found in youth as well.  For example, it has been found that compared with White youths, Black and Hispanic youth were significantly more likely to be sentenced to prison instead of jail and jail instead of probation, while White offenders (compared with Black and Hispanic youths) were more likely to be sentenced to probation instead of incarceration (Jordan & Freiburger, 2010). 

The effects of race and ethnicity on decision-making have also been studied in police officers.  In a computer simulation that asked participants to make quick decisions about whether or not to shoot a potentially threatening individual, unarmed Black targets were more readily shot than White targets (Correll et al., 2007).  Furthermore, using data from 125,000 pedestrian stops by the New York Police Department over a 15-month period, researchers found Black and Hispanic individuals were stopped more frequently than White individuals, even after controlling for precinct variability and race-specific estimates of crime (Gelman, Fagan, & Kiss, 2007). Research on arrest decision-making has found that in encounters without complainants, the suspect’s race had a direct impact on decisions to arrest, with Black suspects arrested more (Smith, Visher, & Davidson, 1984).  Furthermore, research suggests Black youth are more vulnerable to police contacts than are Hispanic youth, who are more at risk than Whites (Fine & Cauffman, 2015). 

Given these reported biases, it should come as no surprise that racial and ethnic groups differ in their perceptions of the legal system, with Blacks typically holding more negative views (Lee, Steinberg, Piquero, & Knight, 2011; Reitzel & Piquero, 2006). Research from Fine and Cauffman (2015) found that Black youth view the justice system as the least legitimate and most cynically, followed by Latino youth and then White youth. 

Rates of offending also differ by race/ethnicity.  The rates of involvement in serious violence are higher for Blacks than Whites (Morenoff, 2005), and McNulty and Bellair (2003) found that Black, Hispanic, and Native American adolescents reported significantly higher involvement in serious violence than White adolescents.  Taken together, what do these racial biases, differences in perception of the justice system, and differences in offending patterns mean, especially for youth and juvenile offenders?  It could be that minority youth (and adults) internalize this bias, which may ultimately impact their self-efficacy and self-esteem.  For instance, it may be that knowledge of a bias in the justice system leads to negative perceptions of the justice system which then produce internalized racism that in turn increases offending behavior in minority youth.  In fact, internalized racism has been found to be a risk factor and key predictor for major components of the propensity for violence in Black youth (Bryant, 2011). 

Furthermore, exposure to racial discrimination may impact offending patterns as it can decrease self-esteem and self-efficacy in youth, with lower levels of self-efficacy associated with risky behaviors such as aggression (Sanders-Phillips, Settles-Reaves, Walker, & Brownlow, 2009).  Additionally, research suggests that maladaptive behavior may derive from increased perceptions of discrimination or internalization of minority status (Gil, Vega, & Dimas, 1994). Specifically, in a study of male Hispanic adolescents, researchers found that low self-esteem stems from acculturative strains (Gil et al., 1994).  As a result, acculturative stressors such as perceived discrimination may then lead to aggression through lowered self-esteem.  In fact, research has found that acculturation processes impact Hispanic youth’s aggressive behaviors (Smokowski, David-Ferdon, & Stroupe, 2011).  Further, using a sample of serious juvenile offenders, one study examined relations between perceptions of the legal system, perceptions of chances for success, and recidivism, specifically examining racial differences (Abate & Venta, under review).  The results indicated that, in Black and Hispanic juvenile offenders, but not White, perceptions of chances for success mediated the relation between perceptions of the legal system and recidivism, indicating that negative perceptions of procedural justice may drive decreased perceptions of chances for success, which, in turn, explains future recidivism in ethnic minority adolescents (Abate & Venta, under review). 

 

What can psychologists do? 

  1. Work to Create Systemic Change.  Through research and advocacy, Texas psychologists are in a position to document disparities within the criminal justice system and advocate for those impacted by biases policies.  Advocacy efforts include reaching out to legislators and providing training and consultation to law enforcement and the judicial system.  Consider presenting at a criminal justice and law conference.

  2. Empower Ethnic Minority Youth.  Psychologists work with youth to combat internalized racism by developing interventions that foster beliefs in youth that they are capable of success.  Self-empowerment and self-affirmation are paired with providing youth with tools for externalizing acts of bias and discrimination. 


 
 
References
Abate, A. and Venta, A. Perceptions of the legal system and recidivism: Investigating the
mediating role of perceptions of chances for success in juvenile offenders. Under review. 

Bryant, W. W. (2011). Internalized Racism’s Association With African American Male Youth’s
Propensity for Violence. Journal of Black Studies, 42(4), 690–707. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934710393243

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: using
ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1314–1329.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., Wittenbrink, B., Sadler, M. S., & Keesee, T. (2007). Across
the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1006–1023. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1006

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Fine, A., & Cauffman, E. (2015). Race and justice system attitude formation during the
transition to adulthood. Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, 1(4), 325–349. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40865-015-0021-2

Gelman, A., Fagan, J., & Kiss, A. (2007). An Analysis of the New York City Police
Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479), 813–823. https://doi.org/10.1198/016214506000001040

Gil, A. G., Vega, W. A., & Dimas, J. M. (1994). Acculturative stress and personal adjustment
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Jordan, K. L., & Freiburger, T. L. (2010). Examining the Impact of Race and Ethnicity on the
Sentencing of Juveniles in the Adult Court. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 21(2), 185–201. https://doi.org/10.1177/0887403409354738

Lee J.M., Steinberg L., Piquero A.R., & Knight G.P. (2011). Identity-linked perceptions of the
police among African American juvenile offenders: a developmental perspective. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 40(1), 23–37 15p. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-010-9553-2

McNulty, T. L., & Bellair, P. E. (2003). Explaining racial and ethnic differences in serious
adolescent violent behavior. Criminology, 41(3), 709–747. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb01002.x

Morenoff, Jeffrey D. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Delinquency in the
United States.” Pp. 139-173 in Marta Tienda and Michael Rutter (editors), Ethnicity and Causal Mechanisms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rattan, A., Levine, C. S., Dweck, C. S., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2012). Race and the Fragility of
the Legal Distinction between Juveniles and Adults. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36680. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036680

Reitzel, J., & Piquero, A. R. (2006). Does it exist? Studying citizens’ attitudes of racial
profiling. Police Quarterly, 9(2), 161–183. http://doi.org/10.1177/1098611104264743

Sanders-Phillips, K., Settles-Reaves, B., Walker, D., & Brownlow, J. (2009). Social Inequality
and Racial Discrimination: Risk Factors for Health Disparities in Children of Color. Pediatrics, 124 (Supplement 3), S176–S186. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-1100E

Smith, D. A., Visher, C. A., & Davidson, L. A. (1984). Equity and Discretionary Justice: The
Influence of Race on Police Arrest Decisions. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), (1), 234.

Smokowski, P. R., David-Ferdon, C., & Stroupe, N. (2011). The relationship between
acculturation and violence in minority adolescents. Presented at the Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Retrieved from https://asu.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/the-relationship-between-acculturation-and-violence-in-minority-a

Steffensmeier, D., & Demuth, S. (2006). Does Gender Modify the Effects of Race–ethnicity on
Criminal Sanctioning? Sentences for Male and Female White, Black, and Hispanic Defendants. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 22(3), 241–261. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-006-9010-2
 
Steffensmeier, D., Ulmer, J., & Kramer, J. (1998). Interaction of Race, Gender, and Age in
Criminal Sentencing: The Punishment Cost of Being Young, Black, and Male, The. Criminology, 36, 763.

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43(4), 437.
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