Racial perceptions of crime are a key cause of the severity of punishment in the United States, officials from the Sentencing Project in Northwest have concluded.

“Whether acting on their own implicit biases or bowing to political exigency, policymakers have fused crime and race in their policy initiatives and statements. They have crafted harsh sentencing laws that impact all Americans and disproportionately incarcerate people of color,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project and one of the authors of the new report, “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies.”

Ghandnoosh synthesizes two decades of research which reveals that white Americans strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are related to their support for punitive policies that severely punish minorities while sparing whites.

Additionally, officials at the Sentencing Project said the report reveals that the consequences of the false perceptions of minorities by whites are felt far beyond policing.

Included in the eye-opening report released in September, whites consistently overestimate the proportion of crime committed by minorities and they routinely associate blacks and Latinos with criminal actions.

For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by blacks by as much as 30 percent.

Also, whites who habitually associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies ñ like capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing than whites who don’t always associate crime with minorities, the report said.

Officials said those patterns further help to explain why the majority of the members of white communities are more punitive than those from minority communities even though whites are less likely to be victims of crime.

In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Latinos and a majority of blacks opposed capital punishment.

White Americans are also more supportive of trying juveniles as adults and they also favor controversial three-strike laws.

By contrast, blacks and Latinos have proven to be substantially more likely to support public investment in education and job skills as a measure to help prevent crime.

The report concluded that racial perceptions of crime not only influence public opinion about criminal justice policies, they also directly influence the work of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who operate with their own set of unintentional biases.

In her new book, “Suspicion Nation,” attorney and television commentator Lisa Bloom said whites have committed a great deal of crimes, both minor and major, but their race has never been tainted because of it. On the other hand, when blacks violate the law, all African-Americans fall under scrutiny, she said.

“The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American,” Bloom said.

“When we think about crime, we [white people] see black, even when it’s not present at all.”


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