Contexts Quicklit: 11 recent sociological findings on race and the criminal justice system

Washington State Penitentiary. Photo by Philip N. Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.
Washington State Penitentiary. Photo by Philip N. Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.

With the ongoing outrage over the police killing unarmed Black men, the Internet is abuzz over racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Several popular compilations stand out as particularly informative, such as this list from the Huffington Post, which gives facts derived from various data sources such as Bureau of Justice stats and the American Bar Association; and this collection from The Society Pages, which pulls together their short articles on institutionalized racism.

Disturbingly, for many Americans the existence of racial inequality in the criminal justice system and U.S. society in general is a matter of opinion rather than empirical fact. Further, it seems that many want to reduce the cases like those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to the question of whether individual police officers are racists.

The social science researcher has the tools to answer questions about racial inequality in the U.S., a mindset of looking beyond the individual to broader structural forces, and a community of academics who are ready and eager to debate the research. So what can we learn from sociology that might help get beyond whether there is or isn’t racial inequality in the criminal justice system?

I offer a brief review of the insights from recent empirical, peer-reviewed research in sociology and criminology on race and the criminal justice system. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should get you going (and feel free to add your own citations in the comments).


1. Race/ethnicity matters for the size of a police force.

A popular theoretical perspective in sociology and criminology to explain the relationship between the racial composition and police strength is the idea of racial threat – that is, the greater the presence of racial minorities, the greater the state’s social control efforts, including law enforcement. Many empirical studies support this claim (see Sever 2003). This year, Carmichael and Kent (2014) published an article using data from 1980 to 2010 and found that both racial threat and income inequality strongly predict the size of municipal police departments. As income inequality increased in cities, their police forces grew, and the presence of African Americans predicts police force size (Hispanics population size has no effect).

2. Race affects police stops and arrests.

Kochel et al. (2011) found that, controlling for suspect demeanor, offense severity, presence of witnesses, evidence at the scene, prior record of the suspect, and other factors, the minority suspects had a 30% higher chance of being arrested than white suspects. Rojek et al. (2012) found that in predominantly White neighborhoods in St. Louis, traffic stops are more likely to include a search in stops of Black drivers than of White drivers, especially by White police officers, controlling for characteristics of the officer, driver, and stop. The effect can work the other way too: In predominantly Black communities, stops by White officers of White drivers are most likely to result in a search. How to interpret these results? Rojek et al. suggest that this is due to racial profiling done by White officers in racially segregated communities.

3. Enforcement disparities reflect racial perceptions.

Becket et al. (2006) conclude that higher rates of drug delivery arrests for Black men in Seattle compared to White men are the consequence of perceptions of who and what constitutes a “drug problem” rather than the realities of offending. Rather than representing higher rates of offending for Black men, the disparity represents police making decisions that are not race-neutral, such as targeting crack dealers more than dealers of other drugs.

4. Protesters are differently policed.

The protests in Ferguson sparked debate both about the role and forms of political protest, and the racialized nature of protest – for example, some pointed out that protesting while Black is a “mob,” but protesting while White is “disruptive behavior.” Recent research shows that the race of protesters affects police response to protest events: in protests held from 1960 to 1990, African American protest events draw greater police presence – and police are more likely to take action – at African American protest events, conclude Davenport et al. (2011).

Sentencing, incarceration, and parole

I probably don’t need to tell you that incarceration rates in the U.S. are among the highest in the world, and Black men are particularly hard hit (32.4% of Black men have a felony conviction compared to 4.6% of Hispanic men and 1.6% of White men). For a review of published research, check out this by Wakefield and Uggen (2010). Incarceration is so prevalent for Black men that it has been conceptualized as a new stage in the life course of young, low-skill Black men (Pettit and Western 2004).

The criminal justice system process involves multiple steps of decision-making; obviously, prosecution, sentencing, and parole all play a part in landing a disproportionately high numbers of racial minorities in prison. Here are some recent findings.

5. Race matters for punishment outcomes.

This year, a study by Kutateladze et al. (2014), using data from New York, found that Black and Latino (but not Asian) defendants are disadvantaged compared to Whites when it comes to pretrial detention, plea offers, and sentences of incarceration. This effect is particularly strong for Blacks charged with felony violent crimes and drug crimes. Controlling for socioeconomic status reduced the penalty of being Black or Latino, but did not entirely explain the race/ethnic disparities.

6. Citizenship matters for punishment, too.

A quarter of federal prison inmates are not U.S. citizens. Analyzing federal sentencing data from 1992 to 2008, LIght et al. (2014) find that noncitizens, particularly undocumented immigrants, are more likely to be incarcerated and are sentenced to longer periods that U.S. citizens. Further, this effect has increased in the past two decades and is strongest in districts with growing immigrant populations – more evidence that racial/ethnic threat is associated with social control measures.

7. Parole decisions are biased.

What about the timing of reentry after incarceration? Parole boards play a key role in this process. Huebner and Bynum (2008) found that Black offenders wait longer for parole than white offenders, even when controlling for legal, individual, and community characteristics.

Consequences of Racial Inequality in the CJS

We know that disadvantage accumulates over the life course, and being incarcerated is a major source of such long-lasting disadvantage. Here are a few of the far-reaching consequences of negative contact with the criminal justice system, particularly for racial minorities.

8. Incarceration hurts job opportunities.

Compared to their white counterparts, previously incarcerated Black workers experience 21% slower wage growth, regardless of their work history (Pettit and Lyons 2011). Devah Pager and her colleagues (2003, 2009) have shown in two experimental audit studies that being Black or Latino and having a criminal record kills employment prospects. These studies send equally qualified job applicants out to apply for real jobs from real employers; the characteristics of the applicants that vary are their race and whether or not they have a criminal record from a minor drug offense. The result: criminal records hurt employment chances, but even Black and Latino applicants with clean records are less likely to receive a callback from an employer than White applicants with a criminal record. (For a nice run down of the 2003 study, see here).

9. Incarceration exacerbates debt disparities.

Courts routinely impose monetary sanctions on offenders, often in addition to incarceration sentences. Given that Blacks and Hispanics with criminal records have lower expected earnings after incarceration, this legal debt hits these populations especially hard, exacerbating economic inequality (for Black felons, average legal date is 222% of their expected earnings). Further, legal debt hurts credit scores and constrains opportunities for housing and education, and when ex-offenders are unable to make payments, they are further punished with more arrest and reincarceration (Harris et al. 2010).

10. Prisons is bad for health.

For example, recent research finds that incarceration is linked to exposure to infectious diseases and stress that manifests in heart disease and hypertension (Massoglia 2008), incarceration is related to depression (Schnittker et al. 2012; Turney et al. 2012), and formerly incarcerated young adults engage in more unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and eating fast food than their peers (Porter 2014). Overall, the empirical research suggests that the health of Black Americans is hit particularly hard by disproportionate incarceration (for a review, see here).

11. Parental incarceration is bad for the whole family.

Having a father go to prison increases the chance a child will become homeless, especially for Black children, reports Christoper Wildeman (2014). Wildeman’s 2012 research also shows mass incarceration probably contributes to higher infant mortality rates, and he has further shown that when children’s fathers go to prison their mothers are more likely to suffer negative mental health consequences.

Comments 10

Contexts Quicklit: 11 recent sociological findings on race and the criminal justice system - Treat Them Better

December 19, 2014

[…] By Lucia Lykke at Contexts Blog […]

Contexts Quicklit: 11 recent sociological findi...

December 20, 2014

[…]   […]

Nathan Palmer

December 21, 2014

This is fantastic! This is exactly what a public audience needs sociologists to do more of. Thank you for putting this together and more importantly, for keeping it concise.

Richard Hammes

December 22, 2014

Very interesting information. It takes the emotional response out of the equation and focuses on data and informed sources. Too bad that this will not be read by those who would benefit most, the low information individual (which is a broad swath of the U. S. population.

Conditionally Accepted | But, Do #BlackLivesMatter In Academia?

December 23, 2014

[…] peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes.  But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices […]

11 Recent Sociological Findings on Race and the Criminal Justice System | Welcome to the Doctor's Office

December 30, 2014

[…] by Lucia Lykke from […]

Omkar Joshi

July 11, 2016

Excellent summary of the prevalent racial biases !

Robin Cheatham

June 22, 2018

How sad when one race is targeted unfairly that means the innocent suffer also the manpower and money being used to intimidate and patrol one race leaves the other races unprotected and free range to commit crimes that are glorified in the media.


September 19, 2019

Another way we can have the hack tiktok is at this website and this was the best thing that we are knowing until now.


July 28, 2020

I really know that all parents need to know more about their children. I hope that it will be in the future. In my personal example, you could see that after I saw an article at this page I understood what is the most important thing. I need to watch what my children text to others and It could help me to prevent awful things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *