Racial threat and punitive police attitudes

Racial Threat Theory posits that punitive attitudes are produced when Whites are alarmed by large or growing Black populations. While research has identified a relationship between Black composition and support from community members for more punitive criminal justice policy, no research has examined whether racial composition influences punitive attitudes among criminal justice personnel—even though they represent a key population that can engage in discrimination. This study advances our understanding of racial threat and police force by examining the relationship between Black population and punitive use-of-force attitudes on the part of police. Using survey and census data for approximately 10,000 police officers in 97 agencies, multilevel analyses reveal that officers report more punitive attitudes in jurisdictions with larger Black populations and that this relationship is concentrated among White police officers. The results provide evidence that racial disparities in police outcomes are at least partly driven by motivational criteria (such as discrimination).

Published in Justice Quarterly.

Ethnic diversity, Ethnic Polarization, and Incarceration Rates: A Cross-national Study

Recent political rhetoric both in the U.S. and abroad has drawn renewed attention to racial and ethnic conflict, state power, and punishment. The salience of minority group conflict on incarceration is well established in theory and research in the U.S. This study explores whether racial/ethnic composition explains incarceration rates throughout the world, rather than being a peculiarity of the U.S. It also evaluates the functional form of these relationships. Analysis of up to 132 nations indicates that incarceration rates are significantly associated with ethnic diversity and ethnic polarization. The lowest incarceration rates are observed in countries with substantial homogeneity or substantial diversity. Incarceration rates are highest in countries with moderate diversity but high polarization—where a sizable minority population is present, approaching parity with a majority group. Minority group conflict may be a troublesome contributor to punishment throughout the world and is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Published in Justice Quarterly.

Victim Age and Capital Sentencing Outcomes in North Carolina (1977–2009)

Age is prominent among theories of criminology and victimology. It is less conspicuous in punishment theory, despite its emphasis in retributive theory and lawmaking. The present study evaluated competing ‘years of life lost’ and ‘vulnerable victim’ hypotheses to examine the influence of victim age in capital sentencing decisions. Using case file data on the population of capital murder trials in the State of North Carolina (1977–2009), our findings produce mixed results. Our quantitative analyses suggest that death sentences are significantly less likely in direct proportion to victim age. Killers of elderly victims are less likely to receive the death penalty; conversely, the odds of a death sentences are slightly greater for killers of child victims. Supplementary qualitative analyses suggest that while many child and elderly victims were not per se ‘vulnerable,’ a substantial subset of each clearly were treated as such. We discuss implications for vulnerable victim research and the role of quasi-legal factors in case outcomes.

Published in Criminal Justice Studies.

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Rape, Race, and Capital Punishment: An Enduring Cultural Legacy of Lethal Vengeance?

Historical analyses of southern statutes (i.e., Slave Codes, Black Codes, “Jim Crow,” etc.) and their enforcement reveals evidence of an enduring cultural legacy prescribing lethal vengeance to Blacks who violate White sensibilities, especially for Black males accused of sexually assaulting White females. Using a population of official data on capital murder trials in North Carolina (1977–2009), this study examines the degree to which this cultural legacy endures to the present by examining the joint effects of offender’s race and rape/sexual assault on the capital sentencing outcomes of capital murder trial involving White female victims. Our findings reveal support for the continuing endurance of this cultural legacy of lethal vengeance.

Published in Race and Justice.