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Massive study finds little proof for ‘biased’ justice system

Warns unfounded racism claims can cause problems for racial minorities

The criminal justice system is not systemically “biased” against racial minorities, a recent study concluded.

Professor Chris Ferguson, who teaches psychology at Stetson University in Florida and has clinical experience “particularly in working with offender and juvenile justice populations,” recently published a meta-analysis on this topic.

“Race, class, and criminal adjudication: Is the US criminal justice system as biased as is often assumed? A meta-analytic review,” examined the results of fifty-one studies focused on bias in criminal sentencing.

In an email to The College Fix, Ferguson wrote that a meta-analysis “can help understand what the mean study outcome is across studies, effectively smoothing out some inconsistencies between them.”

However, one limitation is that  “it assumes also that all studies are equal in quality[,] which is rarely the case.” But, this means it can “examine how different study quality issues impact results.”

His research found that effect sizes of sentencing compared by race and class, particularly focusing on “Black and Latino defendants as well as poorer defendants” and “Whites or Asians or wealthier defendants,” did not significantly vary for most crimes.

The only exception was for crimes related to drugs. He wrote in his paper that “[for] drug crimes there appear to be very small race differences, though confidence in these effects is reduced somewhat due to the quality of many of the studies involved.”

He also said that it is true there was racism in the criminal justice system in the past, and it could exist in the future. But right now, based on his research, he is not convinced it currently exists.

Another concept in his study was that of “statistical noise,” described by Ferguson to The Fix as “a lot of tiny correlations between everything that don’t actually reflect real correlations in real life… usually with very low ‘effect sizes.’”

He said “in very large sample studies (which are common in the field of race and criminal justice sentencing), noise effects can show as ‘statistically significant’ and this can mislead researchers into thinking they’ve found support for their hypothesis when they really haven’t.”

Regarding his research, he said that “[results] for most outcomes related to race and criminal justice outcomes were clearly at the level of this noise and, as such, should not be taken as evidence for hypothesized disparities.”

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In discussing the prevalence of “[scholarly] and public perceptions…[that] appear to suggest that significant, systemic, disparities continue to exist in the criminal justice system,” Ferguson cited the work of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow.” Her book argues there is racial discrimination throughout the criminal justice system.

Alexander did not reply to a request for comment on Ferguson’s paper sent via her website in the past month.

Ferguson stated in the abstract that “narratives of ‘systemic racism’ as relates to the criminal justice system do not appear to be a constructive framework from which to understand this nuanced issue.”

In the conclusion, he explained some of the problems that can come from “overstating” the effects of racism.

He wrote that “overstating the case for sentencing disparities may itself cause harm to minority communities through increasing racial discord, creating fear and mistrust, and reducing community cooperation with criminal justice authorities, which may lead to the experiencing of more crime.”

When asked if he had recommendations for reversing unfounded mistrust in the criminal justice system, Ferguson told The Fix “there’s something called the [BS] asymmetry factor which means it can be very difficult to reverse public perceptions of a thing.”

“That’s particularly true when some people have personal interests in believing that whether it is profitable for them, gains them social reputation or just makes them feel moral,” he said.

His final suggestion was that “[it] requires constant and patient repetition, presenting data over and over, keeping cool… and it can take 10-15 years, so it requires patience.”

Ferguson’s paper also responds to research conducted by Julian Rucker and Jennifer Richeson, professors of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale University, respectively. Rucker did not respond to two requests for comment via email on January 11 and January 18, while Richeson said she was not available to provide comment.

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Maria Thomas is a student at Indiana University double-majoring in marketing and public policy analysis. On campus, she is president of the Thomistic Institute and co-president of Students for Life. She also contributes to The Collegiate Commons.