Racial Bias and Discriminatory Attitudes About Crime Undermine Fairness for People of Color

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A new report by the Sentencing Project finds that many white Americans' strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are a key driver of increasingly severe crime policies.

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The increase in the jail and prison population from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years has lead to unprecedented prison overcrowding and put tremendous strain on state budgets.

“Tough on crime” policy has created a growing underclass of ex-prisoners who are barred from productively re-entering society by increasingly numerous and onerous restrictions on things like applying for a driver's license, adopting a child, voting, and receiving federal aid for education or food in many states.

These harsh policies disproportionately target people of color: nearly 60 percent of middle-aged black men without a high school degree have been imprisoned, and while blacks and Latinos comprise 30 percent of the population, they are 58 percent of prisoners.

By compiling two decades of research, the Sentencing Project found that Americans grew dramatically more punitive as the prison population soared, starting in the late 1960s. And many white Americans, who constitute a majority of policymakers, police, prosecutors, judges, the media, and the general public, have been and still are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime. They are more likely to support the death penalty, "Three Strikes" laws, and adult prosecution of children, and to describe courts as not harsh enough.

The report found that many white Americans overestimate how much crime is committed by people of color, and overassociate people of color with criminality and violence. A 2010 survey showed whites overestimated the number of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20-30 percent.

Because whites' support for "tough on crime" policies is related to their association of crime with people of color, the report concludes that these widespread racial perceptions of crime have led to a harsher and more racially discriminatory criminal justice system.

The report recommends that media, policymakers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges take steps to counter the implicit bias that infects their decisions, skews crime coverage, and reinforces racialized perspectives on crime. Public safety is at stake, it says, because racial perceptions of crime undermine confidence in the criminal justice system, foster a sense of legal immunity among whites, and lead to "the deaths of innocent people of color at the hands of fearful civilians and police officers."