Human Rights

New Study: White People Support Harsher Criminal Penalties When Told More Black People Are Incarcerated

Disturbingly, exposure to racial disparities in criminal justice makes the public less responsive to reform.

It is no secret that the United States criminal justice system is marred with racial disparities. While black people account for only 13 percent of the population, they make up more than 40 percent of state prisoners.

Yet, according to a new Stanford study, white people are more likely to support harsher criminal justice policies if provided with evidence that shows our criminal justice system disproportionally targets black people, Think Progress reported.

The researchers found that drawing attention to the over-representation of black people incarcerated may actually generate “support for the very policies that perpetuate the inequality,” such as stop-and-frisk and three-strikes laws.

In reaching the findings, co-researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt conducted two experiments. In the first study, white people were asked to watch two videos containing mug shots of black men and then asked whether they would sign a petition calling for the end of strict sentencing laws in California. In the first video, black inmates featured in 25 percent of the mug shots while in the second video, 45 percent of the mug shots comprised black men.

The researchers found that over 50 percent of those who watched the video containing fewer images of black men signed the petition.  On the other hand, only 27 percent of those who viewed the mug shots containing a higher percentage of black men agreed to sign.

Similarly, in the second experiment, two different groups of white New Yorkers were shown statistical data informing them about the racial disparities of the prison population. The group that was led to believe that less people in the criminal justice system are black were more likely to support criminal justice reform policies aimed at ending stop-and-frisk (33 percent), whereas only 12 percent of those informed that black people made up more of the prison population supported reform.

Consequently, the researchers say the study could impact the way advocates proceed in swaying voter support to remove harsh criminal justice policies, with the results clearly illustrating that displaying "inequality numbers" doesn't achieve the desired outcome.

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” Hety said. “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.


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