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Race and Punishment

Resource type: Research Report

The Sentencing Project |

White Americans’ strong association of crime with blacks and Latinos is related to their support for punitive policies that disproportionately impact people of color. Synthesizing two decades of research, this report from The Sentencing Project concludes that racial perceptions of crime are a central cause of the severity of punishment in the United States.

Key findings of the report include:

  • White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20 to 30 per cent.
  • Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.
  • These patterns help to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Latinos even though they are less likely to be victims of crime. In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment.
  • Racial perceptions of crime not only influence public opinion about criminal justice policies, they also directly influence the work of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who operate with their own often-unintentional biases.

The report recommends addressing disparities in crime reporting, reducing the severity and disparate impact of criminal sentencing, and tackling racial bias in the formal policies and discretionary decisions of criminal justice practitioners. These proven interventions can reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system.

Media Coverage

> Crime, Bias and Statistics, The New York Times, 7 September 2014

> The Color of Justice, The New Yorker, 3 September 2014

Learn More

> Visit The Sentencing Project website

The Sentencing Project is an Atlantic grantee.

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Global Impact:

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The Sentencing Project