Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies

By Rebecca C. HeteyJennifer L. Eberhardt
Psychological Science
August2014 Vol. 25 Issue 10

During the past few decades, punitive crime policies have led to explosive growth in the United States prison population. Such policies have contributed to unprecedented incarceration rates for Blacks in particular. In this article, we consider an unexamined relationship between racial disparities and policy reform. Rather than treating racial disparities as an outcome to be measured, we exposed people to real and extreme racial disparities and observed how this drove their support for harsh criminal-justice policies. In two experiments, we manipulated the racial composition of prisons: When the penal institution was represented as “more Black,” people were more concerned about crime and expressed greater acceptance of punitive policies than when the penal institution was represented as “less Black.” Exposure to extreme racial disparities, then, can lead people to support the very policies that produce those disparities, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.