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One would think that hearing that blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population would make people want to do something to reform the criminal justice system. But not in America. A new study published in Psychological Science shows that telling white people about the unequal nature of the system only intensifies their support for policies that overwhelmingly target black people.

Blacks make up only 12 percent of the total U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population. The study attributes this disparity to harsh policies such as California’s three-strikes law, which originally meant that a defendant received a life sentence for almost any crime if they had already had two prior convictions. The law was slightly modified in 2012 to make sure that these life sentences didn’t result from non-serious crimes. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences in California are black.

The study’s lead author, Rebecca Hetey, thinks that policies like this explain why the United States has the highest per-capita prison population in the world.

“Most people likely assume this must be due to rising crime rates, but the explosion in the prison population is better explained by harsh criminal justice policies,” she told Stanford News.

Hetey and Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Eberhardt decided to conduct two experiments to see how white people’s support for these policies would change if they actually knew the facts.

They first showed two groups of white voters a video with mugshots of male prisoners. For one group, 25 percent of the mugshots were of black men, while the other group saw a different video, featuring 45 percent black men.

The study participants were then asked if they wanted to sign a petition that would make the three-strikes law more moderate. Over half the people who’d seen the video with fewer black men signed the petition, while only 27 percent of those who saw more mugshots of black men did so. Seeing more black men in prison only made these participants want to keep them incarcerated longer.

Their second experiment took place in New York, the home of stop-and-frisk, which also disproportionately affects blacks and other minorities. The researchers showed white New Yorkers statistics about black inmates to see how it affected their perception of the stop-and-frisk policy. Some were told that 40 percent of inmates across the country are black, while others learned the New York City rate (60 percent).

About a third (33 percent) of participants who saw the lower national statistic were willing to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk, while only 12 percent who saw the higher New York City number said they would sign it.

They found that the people who saw the New York City incarceration rate were very concerned about crime, which is why they didn’t want to end stop and frisk.

The researchers say that their findings strike a blow against the theory that people will want to fight inequality if they’re properly educated about the problem.

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics, and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” Hetey said. “Reducing inequality takes more than simply presenting people with evidence of extreme inequality.”

Photo: x1klima via Flickr

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