The court of public opinion and perception delivers harsh sentences for people of color in the criminal justice system.
Skewed racial perception of crime - especially white Americans’ strong association of crime with racial minorities - bolsters harsh and biased criminal justice policies, according to a new report by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
When polled, whites overestimate the proportion of crime committed by African Americans and Latinos by as much as 30 percent, said report author Nazgol Ghandnoosh during a webinar about “Race and Punishment.”
These racial perceptions have unfairly made harsh sentencing more common for blacks and Latinos who comprise just 30 percent of the general population but account for 58 percent of the total prison population, she said.
Skewed racial perceptions are amplified by journalists, criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who over-represent minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.
“Dispelling the illusion that we are colorblind in our decisionmaking is a crucial first step to mitigating the impact of implicit racial bias,” Ghandnoosh explained.
Within minority communities, increasing criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color has been “counterproductive for public safety,” she said.
And, added Ghandnoosh, racial bias in the criminal justice system has effectively created a sense of “legal immunity among whites.”
The news media typically follow a script in crime coverage that too often plays on white fear of black crime while downplaying black victimization.
Ghandnoosh recommends journalists analyze how they cover crime stories and carefully consider word choice when polling to avoid exaggerating the public’s support for punitive policies.
Policymakers should recognize that mass incarceration erodes economic and social buffers that prevent crime. Because the criminal justice system is designed to react to crime, not prevent it, scaling back punishment and reinvesting into disadvantaged communities would promote public safety, she asserted.
The justice system is at what Ghandnoosh called a “critical and hopeful” juncture. States have reduced prison populations without compromising public safety, and federal policymakers are becoming more vocal about mass incarceration. Nationwide prison counts have fallen every year since 2010 and the racial gap in imprisonment rates is beginning to narrow.
The Sentencing Project is an research advocacy group that promotes reforms in sentencing policy, addresses racial disparities, and advocates for alternatives to incarceration.
Read the report here.