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Adam Dunbar

 

Follow the Money: Racial Crime Stereotypes and Willingness to Fund Crime Control Policies 

Adam DunbarAssistant ProfessorUniversity of Nevada at Reno


A general shift in U.S. efforts to reduce crime via prevention and rehabilitation juxtaposed with the continued implementation of punitive policies, many of which disproportionately impact Black communities, raises questions about mechanisms underlying crime policy preferences. One concern is that the public is more willing to invest in policing and corrections when those practices are thought to primarily impact people of color.  

Using samples recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, I evaluate how individuals allocate a hypothetical budget across various crime control policies and, in particular, how those decisions differ when prison racial demographics are varied. I also explore how budgetary decisions are influenced by concerns about crime generally and racialized attitudes about crime specifically. For Study 1, participants (N = 156) are presented with information about incarceration rates as well as prison demographics. However, given the aims of the study, the racial demographics of the prison population are varied (i.e., predominately Black or White). Participants are then asked to allocate a budget across various crime control policies, such as funding for police patrols and funding for mental health services. Study 2 (N = 265) uses a similar design but explores budgetary decisions with a wider variety of policies. Given concerns about social desirability, Study 2 also includes an additional condition where racial demographics of U.S. prisons are not mentioned to avoid explicitly mentioning race. 

Findings from Study 1 and Study 2 reveal that the public generally prefers allocating funds to therapeutic interventions than policies oriented toward policing and corrections. However, contrary to expectations, these preferences do not shift when stereotypes about Black criminality are emphasized (Study 1), regardless of whether race is explicitly or implicitly primed (Study 2). Although the racial demographics of the prison population do not influence policy preferences directly, attitudes about race and crime do, in fact, have an effect. In Study 1, participants who perceive violent crime as a “Black” phenomenon propose spending less money on therapeutic interventions and more on carceral interventions. When participants were given a wider variety of carceral and therapeutic interventions (Study 2), fear of criminal victimization, rather than racialized concerns of crime, predicts funding preferences.  

As the U.S. criminal justice system, and related policies, undergoes rapid and sweeping changes, findings from this study may help shape public policy conversations about criminal justice reform and guide related future research. Although there is an apparent shift with regards to criminal justice policy in the U.S., findings from this study indicate that public support for alternatives to policing and corrections can be limited by ongoing support for police surveillance and other formal institutions of the criminal justice system. Additionally, results suggest that the perceived relationship between race and crime still influences criminal justice policy preferences, albeit in limited ways, and that race must be considered when evaluating how and when specific policies are supported. This line of inquiry and the related findings are crucial as debates about criminal justice reform continue amid continued racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes.

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