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How Do We Effectively Deal With the Contemporary Criminal Justice Discriminations That People of Color Continue to Face?

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The United States criminal justice system is the largest in the world

At yearend 2015, over 6.7 million individuals were under some form of correctional control in the United States, including 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons and jails. The U.S. is a world leader in its rate of incarceration, dwarfing the rate of nearly every other nation.

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According to its most simple definition, racial discrimination refers to unequal treatment of persons or groups on the basis of their race or ethnicity. In defining racial discrimination, many scholars and legal advocates distinguish between differential treatment and disparate impact, creating a two-part definition: Differential treatment occurs when individuals are treated unequally because of their race. Disparate impact occurs when individuals are treated equally according to a given set of rules and procedures but when the latter are constructed in ways that favor members of one group over another. Another line of social science research focuses on the attitudes and actions of dominant groups for insights into when and how racial considerations come into play

In addition to the long tradition of survey research on racial attitudes and stereotypes among the general population, a number of researchers have developed interview techniques aimed at gauging propensities toward discrimination among employers and other gatekeepers. Harry Holzer has conducted a number of employer surveys in which employers are asked a series of questions about “the last worker hired for a noncollege job,” thereby grounding employers’ responses in a concrete recent experience.

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Although growing evidence suggests that interpersonal racial discrimination increases the risk of offending, there is much less clarity about the process through which racial discrimination has its effect. Several recent studies point to various social psychological processes (e.g., Simons et al. 2003, 2006), but these findings have not been pulled together into a formal theoretical model, examined simultaneously, whilst predicting law-violating behavior. Building upon this work and drawing on strain and social learning theories, we conceptualize interpersonal racial discrimination as a highly stressful experience—a form of victimization—cumulative in its effect, which increases the risk of crime by producing distress and shaping cognitive frames about the way the world works. Another way that racial discrimination might increase the likelihood of offending is through cognitive frames about relationships and the motives of interactional partners. Individuals have social schemas of relationships and others that vary on a continuum from benign to hostile. Persistent exposure to antagonistic relationships may lead to the development of a hostile view of relationships, whereby individuals impute hostile intentions in situations that are ambiguous or benign. This bias guides an individual’s attention to social cues, perceptions of intent, and situational definitions, and therefore shapes behavioral responses (Dodge 2006). Individuals with hostile views of relationships believe they must use coercive measures to obtain what they deserve and to punish wrongdoers. Such individuals are hypersensitive to threat and consider a strong, proactive response to be necessary (Dodge 1980).

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In the end, given the small disparity in the first place, such unmeasured factors become potentially important. Another question–one that frequently arises in racial bias studies that combine or “aggregate” samples from different states and different counties–is whether black defendants were more heavily represented in jurisdictions where sentences were possibly tougher, not just for blacks, but for whites as well. If so, combining the jurisdictions would create the appearance of a sentencing disparity even when no disparity actually exists. Because America’s races are scattered differently across jurisdictions, and jurisdictions sentence differently from one another, aggregating has an effect that is easily mistaken for racially disparate sentencing.

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Dodge Kenneth A., Bates John E., Pettit Gregory S. Mechanisms in the Cycle of Violence. Science. 1990;250:1678–83.

Simons Ronald L., Burt Callie Harbin. Learning to Be Bad: Adverse Social Conditions, Social Schemas, and Crime. Criminology. 2011;49:553–98.

Scott Lionel., Jr. Correlates of Coping with Perceived Discriminatory Experiences among African American Adolescents. Journal of Adolescence. 2004.

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