ArticlePDF Available

Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System

Authors:

Abstract and Figures

Equality before the law is one of the fundamental guarantees citizens expect in a just and fair society. We argue that recent trend toward mass incarceration, which has had vastly disproportionate impact on African Americans, is undermining this claim to fairness and raises a serious legitimacy problem for the legal system as a whole. Using original data from the Race, Crime and Public Opinion study we show that African Americans view the 'War on Drugs" as racially biased in its implementation. This perception of bias consequentially undermines legal system legitimacy by lowering blacks' expectations for police performance in their communities and encouraging receptivity to appeals for jury nullification based on race. African and African American Studies Version of Record
Content may be subject to copyright.
Lawrence D. Bobo and
Victor Thompson
Unfair by Design: The War
on Drugs, Race, and the
Legitimacy of the Criminal
Justice System
social research
Vol 73 : No 2 : Summer 2006
445
INTRODUCTION
a common element in discussions of what makes the united
States unique is readily conveyed by the phrase “the American Dream.”
While an exact definition of this concept eludes us, widely accepted ways
of thinking about it make reference to notions of freedom, opportunity,
and equality. Lurking not far beneath the surface of these lofty notions
is an idea about the good society—about what is just and what is fair.
As Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), one of the canon-
ical texts of the American Dream, put it, we are bound together by an
American Creed.” This creed contains ideas and values that Americans
of almost any station in life can articulate, namely “inalienable rights
to freedom, justice, and a fair opportunity.” These rights were rooted
in a belief in Enlightenment notions of the moral dignity, worth, and
value of each individual. Such reverence for the worth of the individual
demanded a sort of equality of treatment, at least before the hands of
government and the authority of the state. Among other things, then,
this creed calls for and is understood as requiring that we all stand
equal before the law.
446 social research
What we wish to suggest in this paper is that this ideal, this great
American promise of freedom, opportunity, and equality—of a truly
fair and just society where citizens stand equal before the law—is in
trouble. This source of deep unquiet and anxiety about the American
promise of fairness concerns the gradual but profoundly punitive
transformation of the crime response complex in the United States.1
Legal scholar Michael Tonry opened a 1999 UCLA Law Review article by
suggesting that:
We live in a repressive era when punishment policies that
would be unthinkable in other times and places are not
only commonplace but also are enthusiastically supported
by public officials, policy intellectuals, and much of the
general public (Tonry 1999: 1752).
He closed by declaring that, “For a civil society, the United States has
adopted justice policies that reflective people should abhor and that
informed observers from other Western countries do abhor” (1789).
We very much share these sentiments, especially with regard to
one major facet of this era of “unthinkable punishment,” as Tonry put
it; namely, the radically disproportionate impact this repressive era has
had on African Americans and African-American communities across
this country. More concretely, we maintain that over the past two to
three decades the United States has enacted a series of policies that
have effectively reforged a historically troubled linkage between race,
crime, and the functioning of the legal system. Among the effects of
these changes are a deep crisis of legitimacy for the legal system in
the eyes of black America and a real threat to the promise of equality
before the law.
In general, we seek to render the current rates of black incar-
ceration both more politically visible and problematic. We make three
empirical claims in pursuing this agenda. First, and least controver-
sially, we argue that the United States has enacted policy changes that
have created an extraordinary—indeed, truly world-historic—rise in
Unfair by Design 447
the use of incarceration for purposes of social control. These actions
have had sharply disproportionate effects on African Americans,
though we hasten to add that the mechanisms of such systematic racial
disproportion are more indirect, covert, and implicit than the mech-
anisms of racial bias evident in the past. Second, African Americans
directly experience and are very much aware of these changes. Yet, so
far, the black community is neither of one mind nor acutely politicized
about these trends. Black Americans are, however, by overwhelming
margins deeply disillusioned with the current situation. They regard
the current situation of inequality before the law as a signal failure of
progress in civil rights and of the promise of fairness at the heart of
the American Creed. Finally, this disillusionment is contributing to a
crisis of legitimacy, a crisis that will have effects on how blacks engage
legal authority in terms of interactions with police and with the court
system. The two latter claims we substantiate with data from two inno-
vative sets of national sample surveys from the Race, Crime, and Public
Opinion study (Bobo and Johnson, 2002). With these data we are able
to show both high general rates among blacks of perceived racial bias
in the crime response complex and, more specifically, a perception of
racial bias in the conduct of the so-called War on Drugs. Both of these
outlooks, in turn, undermine a readiness for positive engagement with
the police and with the court system.
BACKGROUND
We as a society have normalized and, for the time being, largely depo-
liticized, a remarkable set of social conditions. These conditions have
been characterized by some as the emergence of a “prison industrial
complex” (Marable, 2002), by others as a new “carceral state” (Wacquant,
2001), and by yet others as a trend toward becoming a “mass impris-
onment society” (Garland, 2001a). Whichever label one uses, such a
society is rightly regarded, at a minimum, as divided against itself, and
arguably as deeply pathological (King, 1998). According to sociologist
and legal scholar David Garland, the mass imprisonment society has
two features: first, “a rate of imprisonment that is markedly above the
448 social research
historical and comparative norm for societies of this type” and second,
“the social concentration of imprisonment effects,” such that incarceration
“ceases to be the incarceration of individual offenders and becomes the
systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population.” (Garland,
2001b: 5-6)
A major outcome of the shift in the United States to a “mass
imprisonment society” is to again breathe life into the old folk wisdom
and perception that African Americans are treated as inferiors who
stand unequal before the law (Hagan and Albonetti, 1982). Jurist and
legal scholar A. Leon Higginbotham argued that American law once
overtly embraced a “precept of inferiority” with regard to blacks, a
precept that we suggest continues to exert discernible effects even into
the present day. Accordingly, the United States legal system was orga-
nized so as to “presume, protect, and defend the ideal of superiority of
whites and the inferiority of blacks. In application, this precept has not
remained fixed and unchanged. Nonetheless, it has persisted even to
recent times, when many of the formal, overt barriers of racism have
been delegitimized” (Higginbotham, 1996: xxv). This emergent social
condition of mass incarceration, we maintain, reinscribes racial injus-
tice into the body politic through a set of policies and practices that
close scrutiny strongly suggests were unfair by design (Tonry, 1995;
Cole, 1999; Mauer, 1999).
This is not to say that nothing has changed, or that direct racial
discrimination by police, prosecutors, the courts, and the prison system
continues without important change. Distinguished legal scholar
Randall Kennedy (1997) has traced two historic patterns of race bias.
The first, unequal protection by the law, points to times and conditions
when blacks could not rely on the police or the courts to protect them
from predation by whites. The second historic pattern of bias, unequal
enforcement of the law, identifies the unusually harsh or capricious treat-
ment that would await blacks suspected or accused of a crime. Kennedy
rightly traces the substantial diminution of these direct and typically
overtly racial forms of bias. Indeed, he credits many of the basic civil
liberty and civil rights protections enjoyed by all Americans as growing
Unfair by Design 449
out of legal rulings designed to prevent racial discrimination and bias
against blacks.
Without asserting direct and overt racial discrimination by
police, the courts, or other law enforcement agencies, we do seek to
establish that, at a minimum, we have arrived at a set of contemporary
law enforcement practices and policies that are seen as unfair by design
in the eyes of most black Americans. These practices have resulted not
only in the vastly disproportionate incarceration of African Americans,
but also now threaten the all-important legitimacy and claim to fairness
that should be a hallmark of legal institutions in a democratic society.
A legal system seen as illegitimate is a system likely to face suspicion,
guardedness, and even open resistance and challenge from important
segments of the citizenry (Tyler and Huo, 2002).
Mass Black Incarceration as Social Problem
The United States has undergone a radical expansion in the numbers
of people physically incarcerated or otherwise under direct supervision
by the state. As figure 1 shows, since 1980 there has been a steady rise
in the numbers of people in jail, on parole, in prison, or on probation,
with the numbers in prison or on probation undergoing the sharpest
increases. In 1980, for instance, there were fewer than 300,000 people
in prison. By 2000, however, that number had risen to over 1 million.
Indeed, a prison population below 300,000 characterized most of the
twentieth century in the United States. Thus, by beginning in 1980,
this figure understates the extreme and abrupt character of the social
change, which can be traced to post-1980 policy reform. Henry Ruth
and Kevin Reitz help put these trends in perspective in their recent
book The Challenge of Crime (2003) where they write:
Over a one hundred year period, 1880 to 1980, the nation
added a total of about 285,000 inmates to the prison
systems. During just the ensuing twenty years, 1980 to
2000, the nation added about 1.1 million inmates. From
1850 through 2000, the nation’s prison system expanded
450 social research
about 206 times over, during a period of only about twelve-
fold population growth. Total people on probation or parole
status rose almost nine-fold between 1965 and 2000 (Ruth
and Reitz, 2003: 283).
Furthermore, not captured by these numbers is also a lengthening of
the average amount of time served.
The radical and extreme nature of this change only becomes clear
by comparison. On an international scale, the rate of incarceration per
100,000 citizens in the United States far exceeds that of all other western
industrial nations. The ratio ranges from a low of 4 to 1 when compared
to our closest neighbor, Mexico, to very nearly 12 to 1 when compared to
places like Sweden and Japan. Only Russia comes close, where the most
recent data shows a Russian incarceration rate of 532 per 100,000 as
compared to a US rate of 726 per 100,000 in 2005 (Mauer, 2005).
Figure 1 Adult Correctional Population, 1980-2004
Data source: Bureau of Justice statistics, correctional surveys. 2005 (Annual
Probation Survey, National Prisoner Statistics, Survey of Jails, and Annual
Parole Survey).
0
500,000
1,000,000
1,500,000
2,000,000
2,500,000
3,000,000
3,500,000
4,000,000
4,500,000
1981 1986 1991 1996 2001
Probation
Prison
Jail
Parole
Unfair by Design 451
We argue, as do others, that the bulk of this rapid increase in
incarceration rates can be traced to the “War on Drugs” and associated
sentencing practices, not to changes in the level or nature of crime itself
(Tonry, 1995). In particular, contrary to popular perception and rheto-
ric, the great rise in rates of incarceration is not driven by a response to
violent crime. As Marc Mauer explains:
There were 154,361 more offenders sentenced to prison
in 1995 than 1985, for an increase of 84 percent. The vast
majority of this increase . . . [sic] (77 percent) consisted of
nonviolent drug and property offenders; drug offenders
alone accounted for over half the increase. Less than one-
in-four of the increased [involved] a violent offense” (Mauer,
1999: 32).
All told, there was more than a 400 percent increase between the 1980s
and the 1990s in the chances that a drug arrest would ultimately result
in a prison sentence.
Of critical importance is that while federal, state, and local
mandates pursued a “War on Drugs,” local police departments were
under pressure to show progress. The quickest way to show results (for
example, arrests) is to enhance policing and arrest in already disadvan-
taged neighborhoods, which are disproportionately poor and black.
The predictable outcome, according to Tonry, is a rise in black arrests
and incarceration (Tonry, 1995).
Indeed, the end result has been a rising disproportion of black-to-
white in jails and prisons. In 2004, for example, black males constituted
43.3 percent of those incarcerated in state, federal, and local prisons or
jails, though only 13 percent of the total population. Whites on the
other hand represented 35.7 percent of the male inmate population
in 2004, well under their 75 percent of the total male population. The
Hispanic population, which represents about 18 percent of the total
male inmate population, is also overrepresented but much closer to
their share of the total population of about 14 percent. Looked at in
452 social research
absolute terms, the numbers are just as striking. In 1954, there were
only about 98,000 African-Americans in prison or jail (Mauer and King,
2004). By 2002 the numbers had risen to 884,500, an increase of 900
percent, with some states, such as California, incarcerating blacks at a
rate of 2,757 per 100,000 compared to 470 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic
whites and 827 per 100,000 Hispanics.2
It is important to recognize that these trends reflect recent
policy changes, not some inevitable consequence of changes in the
nature of crime. As distinguished criminologist Alfred Blumstein has
documented (2001), the black incarceration rate nearly tripled between
1980 and 2000 and is now over 8 times that for non-Hispanic whites.
The effects of the War on Drugs is most evident in the consequences it
has had on the life course of black Americans, in particular black males.
Indeed, fully 2 percent of the black population was incarcerated in 1999
and nearly 1 in 10 black males in their twenties were in state or federal
prison in 1999. Even more disturbing, nearly one in three black males
in their twenties were under some form of criminal justice supervision
(including probation and parole). In some areas, more than half of the
black males in their twenties were under criminal justice supervision.
And black males born in the 1990s faced almost 1-in-3 lifetime odds of
ending up in jail or prison as compared to well under 1-in-10 lifetime
chances for non-Hispanic white males (Blumstein, 2001).
Like many criminologists, Blumstein interprets these numbers
as largely indicative of real underlying differential rates of involve-
ment in crime. But, even Blumstein rightly decries these conditions as
a failure of democracy and an acute problem for the legitimacy of the
legal system.3 While it is not possible for the purposes of this paper to
develop a full sociological account of differential black involvement in
crime it is important to put this judgment in perspective. It is of para-
mount importance to recognize that differential black involvement
with crime reflects the interplay of key economic, political, and cultural
factors. Specifically, such outcomes stem from the joint effects of what
eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson (1987, 1996) has called the
new or intensified ghetto poverty and the patterns of social adaptation
Unfair by Design 453
it has spawned, on the one hand, and of what social policy changes did
to engage or exacerbate attendant patterns of social disorganization,
on the other hand. The latter includes sharp reductions in federal aid
to cities and the panoply of policing and legal changes attendant to
the War on Drugs. That is, differential black involvement with criminal
behavior is primarily traceable to differential black exposure to struc-
tural conditions of extreme poverty, racial segregation, changed law
enforcement priorities, and the modern legacies of racial oppression.4
The new intensified and racialized mass incarceration has a
number of reverberating social effects that reach beyond the mere
fact of imprisonment. First, and most immediately, a criminal record
ultimately diminishes the employment prospects of individuals so stig-
matized. A recent field experiment, or “auditing study,” conducted by
sociologist Devah Pager (2003) found that although low-skill blacks can
generally expect to face discrimination in seeking a job, blacks with
a criminal record had vanishingly small prospects of an effective job
search. Indeed, only 5 percent of blacks with a criminal record who
applied for a job received a call back. These numbers are dismal when
compared to the already low likelihood of receiving a callback for blacks
without a criminal record who were called back about 14 percent of the
time (compared to whites without a criminal record who were called
back about 34 percent of the time). At least as distressing is her finding
that even whites with a criminal record fared better than blacks without
a record! They at least received a callback 17 percent of the time.
Second, the experience with incarceration is on the verge of
becoming a normal life-course expectation in some black communi-
ties. Pettit and Western (2004) have recently shown that among the
age cohort 30 to 34 in 1999, fully 60 percent of black men without
a high school diploma had been incarcerated at some point. This is
more than 3 times the rate of 17 per 100 for the same age cohort in
1979, prior to the War on Drugs. To put this in perspective, the rate
for whites increased considerably too, going from 2.9 percent to 11.2
percent; however, these numbers only highlight the stark contrast
in the effects of incarceration on the life-course trajectories of both
454 social research
groups. Given the high rates of black high school dropouts and rising
chances of incarceration—up to 1 in 5, even for those who do complete
high school (or the GED)—this is a very troubling trend. Indeed, the
likelihood of experiencing incarceration over the life course for black
males is greater than the likelihood of having a bachelor degree (Pettit
and Western, 2004).
Third, in many states a felony conviction not only means losing
the right to vote for the length of a term of incarceration; it can also
mean a permanent loss of voting rights. Nearly 2 million African
Americans are affected by felon disenfranchisement laws. On the basis
of careful statistical modeling, sociologists Chris Uggen and Jeffery
Manza (2002) have shown that black disfranchisement alone can affect
which of the major political parties has control of the US Congress and,
furthermore, was easily the numerical margin of victory in the 2000
presidential election.
In sum, there has been a sharp rise in black incarceration driven
by policy changes and not by changes in rates of violent crime or illegal
drug use. The extent of the change and its deep social effects on individ-
uals, whole communities, and the larger body politic need to be borne
in mind as we shift attention specifically to how African Americans
perceive and respond to the public institutions that constitute the
crime response complex.5
ASSESSING RACE AND CRIME IN PUBLIC OPINION
In the light of these trends, the Race, Crime, and Public Opinion proj-
ect pursues three interconnected objectives. First, the project aims to
amplify the voices of African Americans in response to these enormous
policy shifts and social trends through large nationally representative
surveys and a series of small focus groups. Second, the project aims
to better understand the typically enormous black-white differences
in opinion on law and order issues (Hurwitz and Peffley, 2005) and to
disentangle the effects of racial prejudice as a factor in the apparently
durable appetite in the American public for punitive crime response
policies (Johnson, 2001). Third, the project aims to assess the malle-
Unfair by Design 455
ability of public opinion on crime response issues through the use of
survey-based framing experiments (Bobo and Johnson, 2004).
The main data of the larger project comes from two national
web-based social surveys: the 2001 and 2002 Race, Crime, and Public
Opinion surveys (RCPO), as well as four focus group discussions. Each
of the surveys involved large samples of African Americans—1,010 in
the 2001 RCPO study and 1,187 in the 2002 RCPO study. There were
also 978 whites in the 2001 RCPO study and 1,200 whites in the 2002
RCPO study. Data for other racial groups was not collected. In all, there
were 1,988 respondents in the 2001 RCPO study and 2,387 in the 2002
RCPO study. In each case, the survey data was collected by Knowledge
Networks, which employs a full probability design web-based survey
technology. A full report on sample characteristics for the 2001 data
is contained in Bobo and Johnson (2004). The sample characteristics of
the 2002 data are similar in nature to the 2001 data.
Before considering perceptions of bias and disillusionment with
the crime response complex, it is important to underscore that there
are acutely high levels of concern about the problem of crime in black
communities. In our 2001 survey we found that a full 24 percent of
blacks named “crime, violence, and drugs” as the nation’s most impor-
tant problem, as compared to only 13 percent of whites. Blacks more
often mentioned crime and crime-related issues when given a set of
“closed ended” options to select from in the question. Whites, however,
felt the “breakdown of morals/family” was the most important prob-
lem facing America, with 34.1 percent of whites agreeing, compared
to only 16.8 percent of blacks. The same pattern of race difference
holds whether the question is asked in a closed-question fashion or
completely open-ended fashion. When it comes to crime, blacks are
much more likely to rate it as an important issue.
In another set of questions, we asked respondents to assess just
“How serious is the crime problem in the United States?” Again, the
numbers showed just how critical of an issue crime is to blacks, with
some 57 percent of African Americans rating crime as an “extremely
serious problem” in the United States as compared to 40 percent of
456 social research
whites. And blacks were almost twice as likely as whites to rate crime
as a “serious problem” in their own neighborhoods (25.2 percent versus
14.0 percent). Each of these differences is only modestly reduced by
taking into account differences in class background factors such as level
of education and income. The experience of crime and the urgently felt
need for an effective and just response to crime is clear in the black
community (Meares, 1997) and should be kept in mind as we consider
the matter of perceived bias in the system and the consequences of a
seriously compromised claim to legitimacy.
Perceived Racial Bias
In another set of questions in the 2001 RCPO study we asked respon-
dents about their perceptions of criminal justice bias in the courts and
police. A sizeable 89 percent of African American affirmed the idea that
the criminal justice system is biased against blacks, as compared to
38 percent of whites, a difference of some 51 percent points. Fifty-six
percent of whites, on the other hand, felt the criminal justice system
“gives blacks fair treatment,” compared to only 8 percent of blacks. A
difference of roughly comparable magnitude emerged when respon-
dents were asked about the court system, where 79 percent of whites
expressed “a lot” or “some” confidence that judges treat blacks and
whites equally whereas only 28 percent of blacks expressed such opin-
ions. And again, when respondents were asked about confidence in
equal treatment by prosecutors, a difference of similar size emerged.
Just as startling are the gaps in confidence in the police, where 68
percent of whites expressed “some” or “a lot” of confidence in the police
compared to a mere 18 percent of blacks. Thus, whether focused on
the general character of the criminal justice system or specific sectors
of it—such as judges and the courts, prosecutors, or police—African
Americans by large margins see a system suffused with racial bias, and
most white Americans do not.
The texture and detail of these perceptions of racial bias,
however, are captured only in broad outline by the data we have
reported so far. Much more of the grassroots human meaning,
substance, and flavor of these perceptions came through in our first
Unfair by Design 457
round of focus group discussion results.6 Early in the focus group
discussions the participants were asked what “the biggest problem
facing your community” is? The black group, almost in unison said
“crime and drugs,” and a few voices chimed in, “racism.” One middle-
aged black woman reported: “I was thinking more so on the lines of
myself because my house was burglarized three times. Twice while I
was at work and one time when I returned from church, I caught the
person in there.” The strong racial thread to her story became clearer
when she later explained exactly what happened in terms of general
police behavior in her community:
The first two robberies that I had, the elderly couple that
lived next door to me, they called the police. I was at work
when the first two robberies occurred. They called the
police two or three times. The police never even showed
up. When I came in from work, I had to go . . . file a police
report. My neighbors went with me, and they had called
the police several times and they never came. Now, on that
Sunday when I returned from church and caught him in my
house, and the guy that I caught in my house lives around
the corner, he has a case history, he has been in trouble
since doomsday. When I told [the police] I had knocked him
unconscious [she kept a baseball bat behind the door], oh
yeah, they were there in a hurry! Guns drawn. And I didn’t
have a weapon except for the baseball bat, [and] I wound up
face down on my living room floor, and they placed hand-
cuffs on me.
The moderator, incredulous, asked: Well, excuse me, but they locked
you and him up?” “They locked me up and took him to the hospital,”
she said.
Indeed, the situation was so dire, the woman explained, that had
a black police officer who lived in the neighborhood not shown up to
help after the patrol car arrived with sirens blaring, she felt certain
the two white police officers who arrived, guns drawn, would probably
458 social research
have shot her. As it was, she was arrested for assault, spent two days in
jail, and now has a lawsuit pending against the city. Ironically, although
poignant, the story did not seem to shock or scandalize the other black
focus group participants. They all saw it as a readily understandable
example of how police behave in their community.
To elaborate on this perception, consider the remarks of one of
our black male participants in the focus group who, when asked about
relations with the police, went on to say:
I see the police a lot but for some reason a lot of the white
police officers that come to our community . . . sometimes
harass blacks. When they are really needed, when you
see the guys standing out there, you know they are sell-
ing drugs, and you see the things going on out there and
[the cops] are never around. The truth of the matter is we
can see this stuff everyday, and until something [violent]
happens then they come and it’s 20 or 25 of them. But in
terms of patrolling the community, no they don’t do that.
This comment conveys both a concern with abuse at the hands of police,
general underpolicing, and then a sense of excessive or heavy-handed
response to a situation allowed to fester untill it was out of control. This
sort of outlook proved to be a commonly shared view in the focus group.
We directed special attention in the focus groups to matters
of the War on Drugs and its impact. Among the issues we raised was
the differential treatment under federal law of crack versus powder
cocaine. This aspect of the discussion was instructive not only for what
it illustrated about perceived racial bias in the system, but also for the
profound sense of illegitimacy that perception of bias is encouraging.
For example, as one participant said in discussing whether it was fair to
treat crack differently from powder cocaine:
The bottom line is that cocaine itself is what crack is made
from. It is definitely disproportionate, again, because the
access the government has with cocaine itself, all the way
Unfair by Design 459
from overseas to here. It is really interesting when you talk
about your question about the way they incarcerate people
based on whether you have crack or powder. Again, it is a
racist thing, bottom line.
Or as another focus group participant put it during the same session:
I’ve known for a long time [about the sentencing differen-
tial for crack verus powder]. To me, again, it’s a white man’s
law because when you go into the suburbs and they go out
there and get the young boys, or whoever, they are going to
have cocaine. They are not trying to put them in jail for a
hundred years. They will find an excuse. And you’re going
to find more crack in the inner city. That’s how I have
always felt about it when I first heard it.
And perhaps what was most intriguing about this discussion is the
extent to which it suggested that many average African Americans see
the government itself as directly implicated in the international drug
trade and as, therefore, waging a deeply cynical War on Drugs at home.
One participant noted that:
They need to start at the top. The top is US senators and
our congressmen and those people in the Bush and Clinton
administrations. What I’m saying is this stuff is way bigger
than what we are talking about. Border patrol? For every
one boat they catch ten get through. It’s bigger than what
we think and it’s not just a community thing. It’s starting
some place else. The drugs have to be thrown in our neigh-
borhoods somehow.
Our participants are well aware that there has been a sharp increase
in the rate of black incarceration. When asked about who it is that ends
up in prison and why, the following exchange between the focus group
moderator and one of the black female participants took place:
460 social research
* Moderator: “Who is in prison? Who is in the jails?”
* Black Female Participant: “Niggers and Puerto Ricans.”
[group laughs]
* Moderator: “Why do you say that?”
* Black Female Participant: “Personal experience. I said,
‘Well, where is the justice?’ They said ‘You got it: JUST US!
Niggers and Puerto Ricans.”
As part of the same discussion a black male focus group participant
offered the following remark:
My belief is this: Why do so many young blacks get incar-
cerated at such an early age? If you get a criminal record on
you it affects you for the rest of your life. If I get a felony
conviction on you, it’s going to affect you the rest of your
life. I really believe that if you target a group of people and
we get a record on you before you become 18 or 19 that
will follow you for the rest of your life. It happens. It stays
with those kids. Their records are always there. This kid
has been arrested for this or that. It’s targeting.
This sort of view of the criminal justice system as targeting black youth,
while complicated by the shared perception of the real need to control
crime and to deal with serious criminal elements, was also widely
shared and acknowledged in the group.
Perceived Bias in the War on Drugs
All of the preceding results draw from our first round of surveys and
focus groups from the Race, Crime, and Public Opinion project. These
results, especially the focus group discussion, produced such strong
evidence of distrust and disillusionment with the institutions of the
crime response complex that our second round of work emphasized
trying to assess just how widespread the perception of bias in the
conduct of the war on drugs had become, and whether such percep-
Unfair by Design 461
tions of bias were consequentially undermining the legitimacy of the
legal system. Thus, we sought in subsequent survey research to gauge
the extent of this disillusionment and to assess some of its potential
effects.
In our second round of surveys we asked a national sample of
blacks and whites a series of three paired statements about the War
on Drugs.7 The first asked whether drug laws are enforced fairly on all
would-be drug users or are enforced unfairly against black communi-
ties. As table 1 shows, 66 percent of blacks said “unfairly against black
communities” as compared to just 21 percent of whites. In the second
set of paired statements, 51 percent of blacks said that “drug use would
not be such a problem if government officials did not somehow benefit
from it,” as compared to only 29 percent of whites. Most whites (71
percent), however, endorsed the view that “drug use would be a much
worse problem without current government antidrug policies,” a view
shared by 49 percent of blacks. And in the third set of paired state-
Question
White Black
Are Drug Laws Enforced Fairly?
Enforced Fairly on All Would Be Drug Users 79.4 % 33.7 %
Enforced Unfairly Against Black Communities 20.6 66.3
Chi square = 552.02 (p = .00) (1,167) (1,134)
Drug Use and the Government
Drug Use Would be a Much Worse Problem Without Current 70.9 48.6
Anti-drug Policies
Drug Use Would Not Be Such a Problem if Government 29.1 51.4
Officials Did Not Somehow Benefit From It.
Chi square = 137.54 (p = .00) (1,171) (1,146)
The War on Drugs is:
An Effort to Prevent Drug Addiction and Crime 95.4 75.2
Just an Excuse for the Police to Harrass and Imprison 4.6 24.8
the Inner-city Youth
Chi square = 192.35 (p = .00) (1,175) (1,148)
Source: Race, Crime and Public Opinion Survey 2002
TABLE 1: BELIEFS ABOUT THE WAR ON DRUGS
Race of Res
p
ondent
462 social research
ments, 1 in 4 blacks endorsed the statement that “the war on drugs is
just an excuse for the police to harass and imprison inner-city youth,” a
view accepted by only 5 percent of whites.
It is important to stress that these differences in judgments of
bias in the War on Drugs are primarily to be understood through the
lens of race. We created a scale of responses to the perceived racial bias
in the war on drugs item (see table 2). In multivariate analyses predict-
ing scores on this measure, the single largest effect is for the race vari-
able, net of controls for respondents age, sex, region of residence (South
versus non-South), and size of community. In addition, adding controls
for the class factors of education and income did nothing to reduce the
size of the race effect on these perceptions. This sort of “legal cynicism”
may well have an important connection to general patterns of African
American group consciousness and identity. But it almost surely also
reflects differential experiences and encounters with police and other
agents of the legal system (Sampson and Bartusch, 1998).
Effects of System Illegitimacy
The second round of survey results aimed not only at assessing the
extent to which the War on Drugs was seen as a policy rife with racial
bias, but also to assess the possible implications and effects of such
a perception of bias. That is, we sought to determine if illegitimacy
would translate into other types of problems or challenges for the
crime response complex. Specifically, we posed a series of questions
about expectations for police performance, and about willingness to
engage in jury nullification. A focus on these two domains was quite
deliberate. Judgments about the police are one of the areas where large
black-white differences in opinion routinely emerge (Lauritsen and
Sampson, 1998; Weitzer and Tuch, 1999, 2002; Skogan and Frydl, 2004).
Public beliefs about the fairness of procedures and motivation of police
are also key elements of the legal system’s claim to legitimacy (Tyler
and Huo, 2002). As to jury nullification, legal scholar Paul Butler has
made a controversial call for “racially based jury nullification” (1995).
In effect, he suggests that black jurors should take stock of patterns
Unfair by Design 463
of law enforcement and policy trends, asking themselves what is in
the best interests of the black community when sitting on a jury, not
merely whether an accused black defendant has broken the law. Our
strong expectation was that the extent of perceived racial bias in the
criminal justice system, particularly with regard to the conduct of the
War on Drugs, was such that African Americans have developed acutely
low expectations for police performance and high potential receptivity
to appeals to engage in race-based jury nullification.
The question regarding expectations of police asked respondents
to “Imagine that your house or apartment has been burglarized and you
are missing items worth $300. Please indicate how likely it is that: 1)
you would call the police and file a report; 2) the police would respond
quickly to your call; and 3) the police would take your complaint seri-
ously?” It is worth stressing that these questions make no explicit refer-
ence to race and that respondents were encouraged to think in terms of
their own personal circumstances and communities. The overwhelm-
ing fraction of black (90 percent) and white (93 percent) respondents
would indeed take the step of calling and filing a police report. However,
substantial lower fractions of blacks (32 percent) and whites (55 percent)
expect police to respond quickly or to take the complaint seriously—
only 35 percent of blacks expect to be taken seriously compared to 60
percent of whites. The racial gap here is quite large. Whereas a majority
of whites expect a quick response and to be taken seriously, only about
a third of African Americans express such views. That is, on the whole,
whites are almost twice as likely as blacks to expect timely and serious
consideration of a complaint of a burglary.
In another hypothetical question, respondents were asked to
imagine serving on a jury where a young black male accused of a crime
for the first time faced a charge of drug-possession (nonviolent), with
the evidence tending to suggest that the person is guilty. Then, on an
experimental basis, a randomly selected subset of respondents was told
that the defendant had accused the arresting officer of racial bias. With
regard to the nonviolent drug arrest, there is strong evidence of suscep-
tibility to jury nullification appeals among African Americans. Fully
464 social research
50 percent of African Americans expressed a willingness to let a guilty
person go free in this case compared to 38 percent of whites; a number
that rises to 69 percent for blacks when there is an accusation of police
racial bias while having little effect on whites who are still only willing
39 percent of the time to let a guilty person go free.
Are the expectations for police performance and for readiness to
engage in jury nullification influenced by general perceptions of racial
bias in the crime response complex or by specific beliefs that the war
on drugs is racially biased in its conduct? The short answer is a very
strong yes for both outcomes and for both types of perceptions as the
results in table 2 show. Consider first the expectations for police perfor-
mance in table 2a which we treat as a scale composed of the three items
mentioned above: ”that respondent would call the police and file a
report,” “that police would respond quickly,” and “that police would
take complaint seriously” if house were burglarized—with high scores
reflecting stronger, more favorable expectations for police responsive-
ness. Model 1 for the pooled analyses shows a large black-white differ-
ence consistent with the large individual differences in expectations
about police responsiveness. Model 2 of the pooled results then intro-
duces the measures of perceived criminal justice system bias against
blacks and of bias in the war on drugs. Both measures have highly
significant negative effects on expectations for police responsiveness.
Indeed, introducing these perceptions of racial bias completely elimi-
nates the earlier black-white difference in expectations. We performed
separate analyses to determine if the impact of the general or drug war
specific perceived racial bias items had stronger effects among blacks
than among whites. These tests for interaction proved to be insignifi-
cant. As the results for the black respondent only and white respon-
dent only models reveal, the size of the coefficient for both perception
measures is essentially identical for black and white respondents.
Table 2b shows the multivariate analysis results for the jury nulli-
fication experiment. Model 1 of the pooled results shows that support
for jury nullification—willingness to let a guilty person go free—is
higher for blacks than for whites and that there is a significant experi-
Unfair by Design 465
mental effect (support for nullification increases when the defendant
makes an accusation of racial bias from the arresting officer). However,
as Model 2 shows, there is an interaction of race and experimental
ballot. Only black respondents, not whites, are influenced by the accu-
sation of racial bias on the part of the police: in our experiment such
an accusation from a black defendant greatly increases readiness to
engage in jury nullification. Model 3 shows, furthermore, that both
the general perception of racial bias and of bias in the war on drugs
positively influence support for jury nullification. Again, we found no
support for an interaction of respondent race with either of the percep-
tion of bias measures (and comparing the separate models among black
and white respondents shows the coefficients to be of roughly similar
magnitude).
CONCLUSION
Social commentators from Alexis de Tocqueville (1969 [1848]) to
Seymour Martin Lipset (1979) have remarked on the importance of
the condition of equality to establishing the United States as a “new
nation.” This notion of equality applied not so much to the capacities or
resources of individuals as it did to moral standing among one’s fellow
citizens and, especially, in relation to the authority of the state. It is well
established that during the colonial period, slavery, and the Jim Crow
eras that the law systematically and deliberately denied such equal-
ity of treatment to African Americans (Higginbotham, 1996; Kennedy,
1997). In the post-civil rights era, however, the expectation for fairness
in application of the law without regard to race has only grown. And
certainly with respect to the types of overtly discriminatory practices
that once characterized the US legal system we have indeed witnessed
great change.
In the modern era, political expediency and the exploitation
of moral panics about crime (Chambliss, 1995) helped to usher in an
increasingly repressive law and order regime (Beckett, 1997). This legal
regime is now punishing and incarcerating American citizens in general,
and African Americans in particular, at a previously unthinkable scale
466 social research
(Garland, 2001a). The change and absolute scale is now such that some
scholars argue for viewing matters of law and order as a fundamen-
tal aspect of social welfare policy provision more broadly understood
Variables of Interest Pooled Results Black Only White Only
Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2
Constant 3.28 *** 3.68 *** 2.79 *** 3.48 *** 3.47 *** 3.85 ***
Black -0.23 *** 0.00 - - - -
Perceive
d
CJS Bias Against B
l
ac
k
s
2
--0.13*** - -0.17 *** - -0.13 ***
Perceive
d
Drug War Bias
3
--0.29*** - -0.30 *** - -0.28 ***
Adjusted R Square 0.10 0.18 0.05 0.15 0.03 0.09
N2,1852,185 1,068 1,068 1,118 1,118
Pooled Results Black Only White Only
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2
Constant 2.51 *** 2.57 *** 2.07 *** 2.95 *** 2.22 *** 2.51 *** 1.99 ***
Black 0.33 *** 0.20 ** -0.05 - - - -
Ballot: Drug Posession with Police Bi
a
0.18 *** 0.06 0.07 0.31 *** 0.29 *** 0.06 0.07
Ballot x Race (Black = 1) - 0.25 * 0.22 * - - - -
Perceive
d
CJS Bias Against B
l
ac
k
s
2
--0.19*** - 0.17 ** - 0.19 **
Perceive
d
Drug War Bias
3
--0.29** - 0.26 ** - 0.33 **
Adjusted R Square 0.08 0.08 0.11 0.04 0.06 0.04 0.07
N 1,073 1,073 1,073 498 498 575 575
Source: Race, Crime, and Public Opinion Survey (2002).
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001
2
Perceived CJS Bias Against Blacks is a scale constructed from four question in the 2002 RCPO survey. The questions asked whether or not respondents believed the "CJS is
biased in favor or against blacks" and if they had confidence in 1)police 2) judges and 3)prosecutors treating blacks and whites equal. Higher values represent more perceived
bias. Cronbach's Alpha = .863
3
Perceived Drug War Bias is a scale constructed from the three questions in table 1. Higher values represent an unfavorable opinion. Cronbach's Alpha = .560.
1
The Police Responsiveness Scale is a scale of the three questions on what would happen if house were burglarized. They include likelihood of calling police, belief that police
would respond quickly, and belief that police would take complaint seriously (Coded 1 to 4 with 1 being "very unlikely"). Cronbach's Alpha = .661.
TABLE 2A: REGRESSION RESULTS FOR EXPECTATIONS OF POLICE RESPONSIVENESS SCALE 1
TABLE 2B: REGRESSION RESULTS FOR JURY NULLIFICATION OF DRUG POSSESSION CHARGES
Note: Models Control for Age, Gender, Education, insome, Southern/Non-Southern, Metropolitan Residence, and Political Conservativeness
Unfair by Design 467
(Beckett and Western, 2001). Yet, the process and the outcome have
been quietly accepted, as if these trends were all just the inevitable
product of naturally occurring social conditions, rather than the result
of deliberate policy actions and choices.
In this article, we sought to make both visible and problematic
that set of worrisome trends and policy outcomes. We are now a soci-
ety characterized by a condition of racialized mass incarceration. Given
profound changes in the law, as well as in the composition and lead-
ership of police forces, one might have expected current black-white
differences in opinions about the functioning of the crime response
complex to be small and for blacks, on the whole, to express some real
measure of confidence in the system. Just the opposite is what we find.
Blacks are not only far more likely than whites to believe that racial
bias is still a deep problem in all facets of the legal system, but do so by
generally high absolute margins.
Although the blanket patterns of unequal protection and unequal
enforcement written of by legal scholar Randall Kennedy are no longer
the common experience, we do not have a criminal justice system free
of the taint of race bias. Indeed, we believe our evidence on public
opinion makes it clear that, in the eyes of most African Americans,
the system continues to be seen as essentially unfair by design. Such
perceptions of bias matter. They clearly influence how people expect
to be treated by police and even appear to affect how they are likely to
behave should they be called upon to serve as jurors in criminal cases. A
large element of this current taint of racial bias can be traced to a belief
that the conduct of the war on drugs is unfair to black communities.
Social psychologist Tom Tyler is right to assert that legitimacy
matters, both for the practical goal of the effective functioning of law
enforcement and for the profoundly moral goal of ensuring a govern-
ment that treats all of its citizens with an equal measure of respect. The
racialized mass imprisonment society is a society preying on its most
vulnerable members. The crisis of legitimacy growing out of this circum-
stance calls for our urgent attention and immediate steps at policy
reformulation. The goals of such reformulated policy should be crime
468 social research
prevention, rehabilitation for criminal offenders—especially those with
drug-abuse problems—and, ultimately, social reintegration for those
who do break the law. At present, however, social policy would seem to
be driven mainly by a punitive and retributive logic. Our results suggest
that this is a sure path to deepening racial polarization and a further
weakening of the legal system’s claim to fairness and legitimacy.
NOTES
1. Ruth and Reitz (2003: 5-6) propose the term “crime response complex”
as a better rubric than criminal justice system. The former avoids the
presumptions of a consensus on purposes and functioning, of state
agencies as the only relevant actor (that is, an increasing number of
functions relevant to law enforcement are privatized), and underscor-
ing why justice is more an aspiration than an actual or soon to be
attained goal.
2. It is important to recognize that the incarceration of women, espe-
cially of African American women, is also rapidly rising. In percentage
terms, the growth is actually greater for black women than for black
men (Richie 2002). The absolute base and overall levels today remain,
however, at much lower levels for women.
3. Although he interpreted high rates of black incarceration as primar-
ily a function of actual differential rates of criminal behavior, distin-
guished criminologist Alfred Blumstein declared that: “Even if they
represented totally even-handed administration of justice, the high
rates of intrusiveness—and especially the glaring disparities between
Blacks and Whites—must raise profound concerns and an intense
search for means of reducing the racial disparities” (2001: 22).
4. Both Massey (1995) and Sampson and Wilson (1995) provide power-
ful sociological analyses of the ecological niches for crime created by
the conjunction of severe poverty, persistent unemployment, and
racial residential segregation. The key point is that group differen-
tial involvement in crime is not some autonomous cultural phenom-
enon or trait but rather the result of structural social conditions and
processes.
Unfair by Design 469
5. These are not the only broader social effects of the rise in incarceration.
In addition to consuming an increasingly large fraction of scarce state
financial resources (Chambliss, 1995), mass incarceration also disrupts
families and communities (Chesney-Lynd 2002) and contributes to the
perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes, especially stereotypes of
black males as dangerous and involved in crime (Entman and Rojecki
2001).
6. A more complete description of the focus group characteristics is
provided by Bobo (2004).
7. Our focus group discussions directly inspired the construction of these
questions about racial bias in the conduct of the War on Drugs.
REFERENCES
Beckett, Katherine. Making Crime Pay: The Politics of Law and Order in the
Contemporary United States. New York: Oxford University Press,
1997.
Beckett, Katherine, and Bruce Western. “Governing Social Marginality:
Welfare, Incarceration and the Transformation of State Policy.
Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. Ed. David Garland.
New York: Sage Publications, 2001.
Blumstein, Alfred. “Race and Criminal Justice.America Becoming: Racial
Trends and Their Consequences. Vol. II. Eds. Neil J. Smelser, William J.
Wilson, and Faith Mitchell. Washington D.C.: National Academy
Press, 2001.
Bobo, Lawrence D. “Inequalities that Endure? Racial Ideology, American
Politics, and the Peculiar Role of the Social Sciences.” The Changing
Terrain of Race and Ethnicity. Eds. Maria Krysan and Amanda E. Lewis.
New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004.
Bobo, Lawrence D., and Devon Johnson. “Race, Crime, and Public Opinion
Study.” Department of Sociology, Stanford University, 2002.
———. “A Taste for Punishment: Black and White Americans’ Views on
the Death Penalty and the War on Drugs.Du Bois Review 1:1 (Spring
2004): 151-180.
Bureau of Justice Statistics Correctional Surveys. 2005.
470 social research
Butler, Paul. “Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the
Criminal Justice System.” Yale Law Journal 105 (December 1995):
677-725.
Chambliss, William J. “Crime Control and Ethnic Minorities: Legitimizing
Racial Oppression by Creating Moral Panics.” Ethnicity, Race, and
Crime: Perspectives Across Time and Place. Ed. Darnell Hawkins. Albany,
N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Chesney-Lind, Meda. “Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of
Mass Imprisonment.” Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences
of Mass Imprisonment. Eds. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind. New
York: New Press, 2002.
Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice
System. New York: New York Press, 1999.
Entman, Robert M., and Andrew Rojecki. The Black Image in the White Mind:
Media and Race in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2001.
Garland, David. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary
Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001a.
———. “Introduction: The Meaning of Mass Imprisonment.” Mass
Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. Ed. David Garland. New
York: Sage Publications, 2001b.
Hagan, John, and Celesta Albonetti. “Race, Class, and the Perception of
Criminal Injustice in America.” The American Journal of Sociology 88:2
(September 1982): 329-355.
Higginbotham, A. Leon. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of
the American Legal Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Hurwitz, Jon, and Mark Peffley. “Explaining the Great Racial Divide:
Perceptions of Fairness in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.” The
Journal of Politics 67:3 (August 2005): 762-783.
Johnson, Devon. “Punitive Attitudes on Crime: Economic Insecurity,
Racial Prejudice, or Both?” Sociological Focus 34:1 (February 2001):
33-54.
Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Pantheon Books,
1997.
Unfair by Design 471
King, Roy D. “Prisons.” The Handbook of Crime and Punishment. Ed. Michael
Tonry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lauritsen, Janet L., and Robert J. Sampson. “Minorities, Crime, and
Criminal Justice.” The Handbook of Crime and Punishment. Ed. Michael
Tonry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical
and Comparative Perspective. New York: Norton, 1979.
Marable, Manning. The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in
American Life. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002.
Massey, Douglas M. “Getting Away with Murder: Segregation and Violent
Crime in Urban America.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 143
(May 1995): 1233-1274.
Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: New Press, 1999.
Mauer, Marc. “New Incarceration Figures: Growth in Population
Continues http://www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/1044.pdf 2005.
Mauer, Marc, and Ryan Scott King. “Schools and Prisons: Fifty Years after
Brown V. Board of Education http://www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/
brownvboard.pdf 2004.
Meares, Tracey. “Charting Race and Class Differences in Attitudes Toward
Drug Legalization and Law Enforcement.” Buffalo Criminal Law
Review 1:1 (1997):137-174.
Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern
Democracy. New York: Harper, 1944.
Pager, Devah. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.The American Journal of
Sociology 108:5 (March 2003): 937-975.
Pettit, Becky, and Bruce Western. “Mass Imprisonment and the Life
Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration.” American
Sociological Review 69:2 (April 2004): 151-169.
Richie, Beth E. “The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women.
Invisible Punishment: The Cultural Consequences of Mass Imprisonment.
Eds. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind. New York: New Press,
2002.
Ruth, Henry S., and Kevin R. Reitz. The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking our
Response. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003a.
472 social research
Sampson, Robert J., and William Julius Wilson. “Toward a Theory of Race,
Crime, and Urban Inequality.Crime and Inequality. Eds. John Hagan
and Ruth Peterson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Sampson, Robert J., and Dawn Jeglum Bartusch. “Legal Cynicism and
(Subcultural?) Tolerance of Deviance: The Neighborhood Context
of Racial Differences.” Law and Society Review 32:4 (1998): 777-804.
Skogan, Wesley, and Kathleen Frydl, eds. Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing:
The Evidence. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 2004.
de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday,
1969 (1848).
Tonry, Michael H. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
———. “Rethinking Unthinkable Punishment Policies in America.” UCLA
Law Review 46:4 (1999):1751-91.
Tyler, Tom R., and Yuen J. Huo. Trust in the Law: Encouraging Public Cooperation
With the Police and Courts. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
Uggen, Christopher, and Jeff Manza. “Democratic Contraction? The
Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United
States.” American Sociological Review 67:6 (December 2002): 777-803.
Wacquant, Loic. “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and
Merge.” Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. Ed. David
Garland. New York: Sage Publications, 2001.
Weitzer, Ronald, and Steven A. Tuch. “Race, Class, and Perceptions of
Discrimination by the Police.” Crime and Delinquency 45 (October
1999): 494-507.
———. “Perceptions of Racial Profiling: Race, Class, and Personal
Experience.” Criminology 40:2 (2002): 435-456.
Wilson, William J. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and
Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
———. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York:
Knopf, 1996.
... The increased level of minority groups in prison populations can be contributed to racial profiling and increased police presence due to the adoption of WOD policy. In the 1990's police officers were "trained explicitly profile certain ethnic and/or racial groups for law enforcement purposes" (Kenti 2014; Bobo and Thomspon, 2006) Early decisions by agents of social control, influenced by the WOD, led to the hyper-criminalization and surveillance of minority groups. Black Canadians have been the target of the WOD, as the increased institutional powers under the 1995 Controlled Drugs and Substances allowed for increased police power, unlawful search and seizure, increased surveillance and new maximum sentences for drug use (Erickson and Hysha 2010). ...
... The federal death penalty protocol is required to operate in a neutral way with regard to race, ethnicity, and religion, and the U.S. Department of Justice goes to great lengths to proclaim the process free from all traces of bias (Justice Manual 2018, USDOJ 2001, 2000. But criminologists have long understood the disproportionality of arrests, convictions, and executions within minoritized groups to be the result of systemic racism (Bobo and Thompson 2006;Sampson and Lauritsen 1997) and of over-policing in minoritized communities (Jackson et al. 2021). Cohen and Smith (2010) find that because juries in federal cases may be comprised of residents from anywhere within a federal judicial district-which itself may encompass an entire state-the jury of one's peers might be made up of people who are from very different backgrounds from the defendant; indeed, the authors find that defendants who are from counties surrounded by areas with different racial makeups than their own are more likely to be sentenced to death. ...
Article
Full-text available
Prior research has established that crime victims’ and defendants’ demographic traits affect the sentence that criminal defendants receive. In addition, previous studies have found that judges’ and juries’ biases affect the outcomes in criminal cases. Yet, despite significant scholarly attention to the effect of race and gender on criminal sentencing, no previous study has explored whether prosecutors’ demographic traits influence the outcome of criminal cases. This is surprising, given that prosecutors are responsible for determining what crimes defendants are charged with and whether to pursue the death penalty in eligible cases. Here, we utilize data on federal death penalty‐eligible cases and the prosecutors who tried those cases to explore whether federal prosecutors’ demographic traits have an effect on whether the death penalty is imposed. We find that both race and gender have statistically significant effects on whether a defendant receives the death penalty, even when case‐specific effects including victim and defendant characteristics are controlled for.
... In drawing a theoretical connection between racial disparity and perceptions of criminal justice legitimacy, Rocque (2011: 306) argues that the two "are related in complex, multidirectional ways… with racial disparities reducing legitimacy which in turn increases minority criminal behavior." Specifically, personal and vicarious experiences of differential treatment may lead to feelings of "defiance" (Sherman, 2010: 385) against legal authority, which then contribute to future involvement in crime and a decreased willingness to participate in the criminal justice process (Rocque, 2011; see also Bernard et al., 2005;Black, 1970;Bobo and Thompson, 2006;Tyler, 2004;Walker, 2007). More notably, recent policy decisions, or "sanction regimes" (Nagin, 2013: 208), such as zero-tolerance policing of minor drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentencing, have been widely researched and linked to system-level outcomes such as racial disparity and decreased perceptions of criminal justice legitimacy (see Currie, 1998;Nagin, 2013;Zimring et al., 2001). ...
Article
Full-text available
The widespread adoption of body-worn cameras (BWC) began amid public pressure for police accountability following a series of highly publicized use-of-force incidents. Extant BWC research primarily associates the concept of police accountability with the prevalence of police misconduct alone, often focusing on quantitative changes in citizen complaints and use-of-force reports. However, perceptions of accountability following unjustified use-of-force incidents are shaped not only by the prevalence of police misconduct, but also by the broader systemic response, including the way in which the mechanisms of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing are applied to unjust police behavior. This article proposes a systems approach to police accountability in the context of BWCs. Such an approach considers the outcomes of police, prosecution, court, and corrections agencies as equally important to the achievement of accountability. To understand the impact of BWCs on police accountability, their effect on the entire criminal justice system should be considered.
... The War on Drugs was largely a war on the most vulnerable in society: people of color, the poor, and women. Evidence indicates that these populations disproportionately suffered because of the zero-tolerance drug movement (Bobo & Thompson, 2006;Moore & Elkavich, 2008;Provine, 2011;Reagan, 1990Reagan, -1991Reynolds, 2008). Public sentiment toward the criminalization of drugs has shifted in recent years. ...
Article
One of the arguments in support of the legalization of cannabis is that it would help alleviate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Using UCR data from Colorado and Washington, we explore trends in cannabis arrests disaggregated by rates using interrupted time-series analysis, linear mixed models, and data visualizations. The results demonstrate a general decline in cannabis arrests for nearly all racial groups, yet these declines were not consistent across racial groups or even across states. Moreover, substantial racial disparities persist following legalization, especially in Colorado. Overall, evidence suggests that while legalization has likely had a net positive effect on overrepresented populations by decreasing criminal justice contact, it is not a panacea and may only be minimally important for addressing disparities.
... National surveys paint a complicated picture of minority attitudes toward police presence in their communities. Black Americans express much less favorable attitudes toward police than do White Americans [37], and black Americans have a long-documented distrust of the legal system and of police in particular [38][39][40]. And yet in a recent Gallup poll, 61% of Black Americans wanted police presence in their area to remain the same, and 19% wanted police to spend more time in their area [41]. ...
Article
Full-text available
This paper synthesizes scholarship from several academic disciplines to identify and analyze five major ethical challenges facing data-driven policing. Because the term “data-driven policing” encompasses a broad swath of technologies, we first outline several data-driven policing initiatives currently in use in the United States. We then lay out the five ethical challenges. Certain of these challenges have received considerable attention already, while others have been largely overlooked. In many cases, the challenges have been articulated in the context of related discussions, but their distinctively ethical dimensions have not been explored in much detail. Our goal here is to articulate and clarify these ethical challenges, while also highlighting areas where these issues intersect and overlap. Ultimately, responsible data-driven policing requires collaboration between communities, academics, technology developers, police departments, and policy makers to confront and address these challenges. And as we will see, it may also require critically reexamining the role and value of police in society.
Article
Police use of violence may threaten police agencies’ effectiveness by reinforcing residents’ legal cynicism and disengagement from police. We examined police lethal violence against Black people and its relationship with clearance by arrest in a sample of Black victims’ crime incidents in over 350 jurisdictions in 2015, via Mapping Police Violence and the National Incident‐Based Reporting System (NIBRS). We calculated each crime incident's unique time‐varying exposure to police lethal violence, with an accompanying agency‐level measure that averaged this incident‐level measure. Under our original measures, multilevel survival analysis showed a statistically significant association with clearance for the agency‐level average exposure measure, but not for the time‐varying incident‐level exposure measure. Subsequent exploratory analyses suggested a possibly shorter‐lived relationship with incident‐level police lethal violence exposure, which should be investigated in future research. Agency‐level findings encourage the adoption of reforms in policing practices and organizational characteristics that could enhance police legitimacy and citizen cooperation and promote perceptions of procedural justice in the Black community. Exploratory indications of a shorter‐lived relationship between police lethal violence and clearance will, if supported in further research, call for agencies to think carefully about adjusting detective work and resource allocations during the critical period following a police lethal violence event. A negative relationship between clearance rates and police lethal violence suggests a mutual interest of police agencies and activists in the reduction of police lethal violence.
Article
bold xmlns:mml="http://www.w3.org/1998/Math/MathML" xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink">Background: The linguistic framing strategies used in media reporting on illegal drugs have been extensively documented, but less attention has been directed toward visuals, particularly data visualizations. Literature review: Positioning illegal drug use as a criminal justice problem or a public health issue are types of frameworks that use specific rhetorical strategies. Research questions: 1. What are the rhetorical strategies used in data visualizations published during the crack and opioid drug epidemics, respectively? 2. Do these strategies advance dominant media narratives that crack addiction should be criminalized but opioid addiction should be treated like a public health issue? And if so, how is this accomplished? Methodology: Drawing from the media studies approach previously employed in a study in technical and professional communication (TPC) on information design trends, I apply the concept of “scripto-visual” rhetoric to select data visualizations published by mainstream news media during both drug epidemics. Results: I argue these graphics escalated the perceived threat during both drug epidemics but different scripto-visual rhetorical strategies were used. Conclusions: Attending to ethical considerations in the creation of data visualizations has long been important in TPC, while scholarship has integrated social justice as a core component of the discipline. In the last section of this article, I bring these themes together by arguing that a social justice ethic is needed in data design work. I then propose a critical heuristic constructed from Jones et al.’s positionality, privilege, and power framework that can be used analytically or as an inventional tool to tease out the ways particular scripto-visual rhetorical decisions may be promoting inequities.
Article
Since the late 1980s, immigrants convicted of certain criminal offenses have been subject to mandatory detention during their deportation proceedings. Due to court backlog and complicated cases, noncitizens mandatorily detained in this way can be held for years at a time, without any legal right to a bail hearing. While political rhetoric and policy aims of the past three decades have painted so-called “criminal aliens” as a highly dangerous group from whom the American public needs protecting, the criminal convictions that invoke mandatory detention and likely deportation are actually quite diverse, in large part due to the expansion of the “aggravated felony” ground of deportation to include a wide variety of less serious crimes. Drawing from forty interviews with lawyers and other legal actors in New York City’s detained immigration court from 2017–2018, this article explores the effects of aggravated-felony-based mandatory detention. I argue that in doubly punishing immigrants who have already served time for criminal convictions, the immigration system funnels criminalized noncitizens—particularly those from poor Black and Latinx communities—toward deportation, perpetuating inequality and upholding existing racial hierarchies.
Article
In comparison to white students, the study of Black student attitudes toward crime reporting on college campuses is deficient, especially in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Using approximately 100 completed student questionnaires, statistical results suggest that the majority of students express a willingness to report a campus-related crime to campus police. The highest reported explanation for refusing to report a crime is based upon the prospect of being labeled in a negative manner. The highest reported explanation for reporting a crime is based upon the receipt of a financial reward and anonymity. Bivariate calculations indicate that age, gender, and residential status are significantly associated with crime reporting decisions. Policy implications, areas of further research, and limitations are provided.
Article
The Half-Century long problem of addiction treatment disparities. We cannot imagine addressing disparities in addiction treatment without first acknowledging and deconstructing the etiology of this inequity. This article examines the history of addiction treatment disparities beginning with early twentieth-century drug policies. We begin by discussing structural racism, its contribution to treatment disparities, using opioid use disorder as a case study to highlight the importance of a structural competency framework in obtaining care. We conclude by discussing diversity in the workforce as an additional tool to minimizing disparities. Addiction treatment should be aimed at addressing care delivery in the context of the social, economic, and political determinants of health, which require appreciation of their historical origins to move toward equitable treatment.
Chapter
ABOUT THIS BOOK Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) came to America in 1831 to see what a great republic was like. What struck him most was the country's equality of conditions, its democracy. The book he wrote on his return to France, Democracy in America, is both the best ever written on democracy and the best ever written on America. It remains the most often quoted book about the United States, not only because it has something to interest and please everyone, but also because it has something to teach everyone. When it was published in 2000, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop's new translation of Democracy in America—only the third since the original two-volume work was published in 1835 and 1840—was lauded in all quarters as the finest and most definitive edition of Tocqueville's classic thus far. Mansfield and Winthrop have restored the nuances of Tocqueville's language, with the expressed goal "to convey Tocqueville's thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today." The result is a translation with minimal interpretation, but with impeccable annotations of unfamiliar references and a masterful introduction placing the work and its author in the broader contexts of political philosophy and statesmanship.
Article
Many contemporary American criminal justice policies and developments, such as "real offense sentencing," the use of youth as an aggravating factor in sentencing, and "disintegrative shaming" as a rationale for punishment, defy conventional moral norms and conflict with mainstream theoretical justifications for punishment. In this Article, Michael Tonry examines reasons why such policies nonetheless enjoy widespread public and scholarly support. Drawing on historical literature on long-term crime treads and their relation to criminal justice policy and sociological literature on "moral panics," he argues that current punitive excesses are the result of a convergence of several powerful forces. A series of "moral panics" about sexual and violent crime and an overall reduction in crime and drug-use races have combined to make policies seem unobjectionable today that would be unthinkable in other times. Tonry concludes with suggestions about how to address these problems in the future, and how to make criminal justice policies more humane and more effective.
Article
Although growth in the U.S. prison population over the past twenty-five years has been widely discussed, few studies examine changes in inequality in imprisonment. We study penal inequality by estimating lifetime risks of imprisonment for black and white men at different levels of education. Combining administrative, survey, and census data, we estimate that among men born between 1965 and 1969, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. The risks of incarceration are highly stratified by education. Among black men born during this period, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. The novel pervasiveness of imprisonment indicates the emergence of incarceration as a new stage in the life course of young low-skill black men.
Article
We advance here a neighborhood-level perspective on racial differences in legal cynicism, dissatisfaction with police, and the tolerance of various forms of deviance. Our basic premise is that structural characteristics of neighbor-hoods explain variations in normative orientations about law, criminal justice, and deviance that are often confounded with the demographic characteristics of individuals. Using a multilevel approach that permits the decomposition of variance within and between neighborhoods, we tested hypotheses on a recently completed study of 8,782 residents of 343 neighborhoods in Chicago. Contrary to received wisdom, we find that African Americans and Latinos are less tolerant of deviance--including violence--than whites. At the same time, neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage display elevated levels of legal cynicism, dissatisfaction with police, and tolerance of deviance unaccounted for by sociodemographic composition and crime-rate differences. Concentrated disadvantage also helps explain why African Americans are more cynical about law and dissatisfied with the police. Neighborhood context is thus important for resolving the seeming paradox that estrangement from legal norms and agencies of criminal justice, especially by blacks, is compatible with the personal condemnation of deviance.