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Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies

Hands of different colors behind bars

This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By Nazgol Ghandnoosh, PhD (Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project)

“When you think about people who break into homes and businesses, approximately what percent would you say are black?”

White Americans who responded to this survey question in 2010 overestimated the actual share of burglaries committed by African Americans by 27%. They similarly overestimated when asked about illegal drug sales and juvenile crime. These answers demonstrate how racial perceptions of crime are exaggerated. Implicit bias studies have established that such perceptions are also widespread. Whites who reject overt prejudice, including criminal justice professionals, still unconsciously associate blacks with criminality.

As I detail in a new Sentencing Project report, “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies,” racial perceptions of crime are significant not only because they have contributed to the tragic deaths of innocent people of color at the hands of fearful civilians and police officers. They have also made the criminal justice system more severe for all Americans.

Whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment, mandatory minimum sentencing, and trying youths as adults – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime. This relationship exists even after controlling for relevant factors such as racial prejudice, conservatism, and crime salience. As one group of researchers put it, “Public support for punitive juvenile justice policies to some extent represents a desire to control other people’s children.”

Racial perceptions of crime help to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime. In 2013, the majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder. Yet half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment. Compared to blacks, whites are also more likely to support “three strikes and you’re out” laws, to describe the courts as not harsh enough, and to endorse trying youths as adults. And yet blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be victims of violent and property crimes.

How do racial perceptions of crime help to explain this schism in public opinion? One likely explanation is that a racial gap between individuals and their conceptions of typical offenders stifles empathy. Attributing crime to people of color limits white Americans’ empathetic understanding and encourages retribution as their primary response to crime.

Racial perceptions of criminality stem from three sources. First, racial differences in certain crime rates – resulting from socioeconomic and racial inequalities – provide some basis for white Americans’ racial perceptions of crime. Second, media representations of crime draw on, and contribute to, racial stereotypes. For example, a study of how Columbus, Ohio’s major newspaper reported on the city’s murders found that reporters disproportionately gravitated to unusual cases when selecting victims (white women) and to typical cases when selecting perpetrators (black men). Finally, through their statements, policies, and use of discretion, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have deployed their own and reinforced the public’s associations of crime with racial minorities. For example, a recent American Civil Liberties Union study found that African Americans were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in 2010, despite similar rates of drug use.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have spotlighted concerns about racial bias in policing at a critical moment in the American justice system. The “tough on crime” era has receded, with Attorney General Eric Holder, bipartisan congressional leadership, and the United States Sentencing Commission calling for reforms to reduce the severity and disparate impact of criminal sanctions. The public has become less punitive in recent years and the scale of incarceration and its racial disparity have also begun to decline.

But there is a long way to go. The United States has the world’s highest imprisonment rate, including one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Black men were 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men in 2013, and Hispanics were 2.4 times as likely. Women of color were also more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, although with less severe disparities than men.

Dispelling the illusion that we are colorblind in our decision making is the first step to uprooting the impact of racial bias, accompanied by proven interventions to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system. Journalists can monitor and correct disparities in crime reporting. Policymakers can craft legislation to scale back overly punitive sanctions, and to reduce racial disparities in sentencing and crime rates. Criminal justice professionals can tackle implicit bias in both individual discretion and agency policies.

Through reforms such as these, we can better align our criminal justice policies with our principles.


Nazgol Ghandnoosh, PhD, is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues. In addition to “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies,” she has also written (with Marc Mauer) “Can We Wait 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration?” and “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States.”

Ghandnoosh earned a BS in Economics (2001) at the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Sociology (2013) at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her dissertation, Challenging Mass Incarceration: A California Group’s Advocacy for the Parole Release of Term-to-Life Prisoners, examined resistance to mass incarceration through an in-depth study of a South Los Angeles-based group.

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