Coloring Punishment: Implicit Social Cognition and Criminal Justice
The United States has become the world’s leader in incarceration. The size and pervasiveness of the criminal justice regime have no parallel in history. One in 100 citizens are locked away in prisons and jails – a figure that reflects a tenfold expansion in the corrections population in less than four decades. If we count those individuals who are currently on probation or parole, more than 7 million men and women are under legal supervision – a number equal to the population of Israel. This system of mass incarceration – which includes policing, corrections, and the courts – employs 2.2 million Americans – which exceeds the 1.7 million Americans employed in higher education and the 650,000 employed by the system of public welfare. At the turn of the millennium, approximately 1.5 million children had at least one parent in jail or prison, and 10 million have had a parent in jail at some time during their lives.
Racial disparities are a defining feature of this regime. One in eight black males between the ages of 20–29 are in prison or jail on any given day, as compared with 1 in 59 white males of the same age. At the beginning of the new millennium black males had almost a 1 in 3 chance of serving time in prison, as compared with 3 in 50 for white males. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has suggested that current criminal justice policies and practices “threaten to render irrelevant fifty years of hard-fought civil rights progress.”
There are varied explanations for these disparities. Most analyses point to a constellation of complex and interrelated structural and institutional factors that include poverty, high rates of joblessness, low levels of education, and the clustering of blacks and Latinos in concentrated urban areas that are more heavily policed than predominantly white suburban and rural areas. In this chapter, we put forth a complementary analysis, one intended to fill in gaps that we consider to be missing from these structural analyses. The ongoing racial disparities evidenced in every phase of the criminal justice system can be at least partly explained by the levels of implicit racial bias held by key actors in the system. Although we cannot yet offer “the smoking gun” that indisputably links the presence of implicit bias among decision-makers to harsher criminal sanctions for black Americans, our hypothesis is backed by a robust and fast-growing literature that has developed over the past decade. This scholarship demonstrates conclusively that Americans (whites and people of color alike) possess negative implicit biases against black citizens. These implicit race biases are held by liberals and conservatives; by young people and old; and by residents on the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, and the Midwest. They often coexist, unknowingly by the holder, alongside more overtly egalitarian views. What makes them so important in any discussion about race and the law is that these implicit biases frequently determine our actions and sway our decisions. In the criminal justice context, these biases lead, for example, to more arrests and harsher sentences for blacks than for whites who commit similar offenses.
It is vital to understand and document more fully how and where implicit biases operate within the criminal justice system. Doing so will enable us to develop policies, practices, and strategies aimed at identifying and reducing their effects. In this chapter, we offer specific illustrations of how implicit racial bias influences the actions of key decision-makers at various phases of our criminal justice system. This chapter is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the role of implicit bias within the criminal justice system; rather its objective is to match the literature on implicit bias with actual examples of its “real-world” effects. From the formulation of criminal justice policy, to the decision to target citizens of a particular race, to the selection of criminal petit juries, the impact of implicit race bias on decisions about arrests, sentences, and severity of punishment is broad and deep.
This chapter proceeds in five parts. Part I sets the stage for this analysis, introducing key implicit racial bias studies that demonstrate that the face of crime in America is black. More specifically, it documents that black citizens are considered to be more dangerous, hostile, and prone to criminality and also less fully human than white citizens. Building on this foundation, Part II examines the role that implicit racial bias plays in the formulation of crime policy. Part III examines why implicit racial bias might drive disparate outcomes in the enforcement of criminal laws. This part examines the phenomenon in two distinct contexts: (1) the decision to punish a student in the school discipline context and (2) the use of unnecessary force in police–citizen encounters. Part IV uses the example of discriminatory jury selection to explore how implicit racial bias might contribute to the exclusion of black citizens from the criminal justice decision-making process. Part V concludes the chapter.
Robert J. Smith, Johanna Wald, and Charles Ogletree. "Coloring Punishment: Implicit Social Cognition and Criminal Justice" Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law. Ed. Justin D. Levinson and Robert J. Smith. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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