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Racial Disparity in the Justice System
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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. 

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. 

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Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: using
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