Study Finds Racial Disparities in Incarceration Drive Support for Harsh Criminal Justice Policies

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Stanford researchers found that people were more supportive of harsh criminal justice policies the more African Americans they believed were in prison.

Researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt conducted innovative studies in two regions of the country with two different crime-fighting policies in order to examine the relationship between racial disparities in incarceration and people's acceptance of punitive policies like three-strikes laws.

Participants were shown information about the state prison system. Some were told that 25 percent of the state's inmates were black and some were told that 45 percent were black. In California, participants were informed about the state's three-strikes law and the petition then circulating state-wide for a ballot initiative that would lessen the law's severity. The study measured support for punitive policies by whether the participant signed the petition.

The results showed that 52 percent of participants who believed prisons were less black signed the petition, in contrast with only 27 percent of those in the more-black group. The study's authors concluded that "the Blacker the prison population, the less willing registered voters were to take steps to reduce the severity of a law they acknowledged to be overly harsh."

In New York, researchers tested the possibility that fear of crime might explain people's support for harsh crime and policing policies by measuring what participants thought about the city's stop-and-frisk policy. Participants on average thought the policy was somewhat punitive, but those in the group who believed more prisoners were black were significantly less willing (12 percent) to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk than those in the other group (33 percent).

The study also revealed that participants who were led to believe the prison population was 60 percent black were significantly more concerned about crime than those who were told 40 percent of prisoners are black. And the more participants worried about crime, the less likely they were to say they would sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk.

The authors found that "exposing people to extreme racial disparities in the prison population heightened their fear of crime and increased acceptance of the very policies that lead to those disparities."