Mega-Study Finds That Minorities Don’t Receive Harsher Criminal Punishments, But That Academics Said So Anyway

"Evidence for racial bias in the US criminal justice system has been consistently weak, and... scholarly narratives have too often ignored this."
Black Youth in Prison
Doug Berry/Getty Images

An analysis of twenty years of academic literature found that there is little or no evidence that minorities are mistreated by the criminal justice system when it comes to punishment, despite assertions to the contrary by policymakers, media, and academics.

“In recent years it has become common belief within the scholarly community as well as the general public that the criminal justice system is biased due to race and class issues. We sought to examine this with meta-analysis. Our results suggest that for most crimes, criminal adjudication in the US is not substantially biased on race or class lines,” professors Christopher J. Ferguson and Sven Smith of Stetson University found in a study to be published in the criminology journal Aggression and Violent Behavior and obtained by The Daily Wire.

“Overall, this is a cause for optimism,” researchers concluded—though their findings also called into question the honesty and rigor of the work conducted by race-fueled scholars, whose weaknesses were highlighted this month in former Harvard president Claudine Gay.

As a meta-analysis, the study did not create a new dataset on criminal sentencing and race, but rather examined 51 studies conducted by others looking at the question since 2005. The numbers suggesting no or marginal racial bias in punishment were therefore collected by the existing studies, but those authors often claimed to have found racial bias in their writings, even when their numbers did not back it up.

“We express the concern that evidence for racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system has been consistently weak, and that scholarly narratives have too often ignored this in favor of the systemic racism narrative,” Ferguson and Smith wrote.

Some of the studies found no evidence of racism in criminal sentencing and said so clearly, but their findings were simply ignored by the media, politicians, and other academics, who at times did not acknowledge a single paper dissenting from their hypothesis in their citations.

“At present, we believe that the evidence on racial bias in criminal justice adjudication has been poorly communicated to the general public and policymakers. In many cases, it appears that data calling into question beliefs in structural racism in the criminal justice system are simply being ignored, both by scholars in the field and by policy makers,” the new paper said.

When combining the 51 studies, the numbers “did not reach evidentiary standards to support the hypothesis that race or class are predictive of criminal adjudication” when it comes to all crime types, violent crimes, or juvenile crimes. For drug crimes, “small disparities were found… suggesting that race/ethnicity is associated with between 1.6 to 1.8% of the variance in criminal adjudication” among blacks and Hispanics facing drug charges, versus whites–a percentage so small that policy discussions focused on it are unlikely to solve any problems.

“There was no evidence of a class effect, and Asians actually received more favorable treatment during criminal adjudication than Whites, albeit not at a level that met our evidentiary standard,” the paper said.

Scholars determined to find racial bias were often able to claim to have made a statistically significant finding because court records allow for studies to include tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases. In science, the threshold for “statistical significance” is a balance between how big the effect is and how many examples were included in the study. In studies with huge amounts of criminal cases, even the most minute differences in criminal sentences can technically be called “significant.” But in the common meaning of the word, a years-long prison term being a few days shorter or longer, on average, for different race or class groups is not actually significant, and is essentially “noise” in the data set, the paper said.

Among other signs of biased or poorly done science, race researchers often did not “pre-register” their studies by laying out in advance their hypothesis and what they would do to determine if it was true or not. That meant that if their initial methodology found no evidence of racism, they could simply slice and dice the data in different ways until they found some way in which they could claim vindication. (Ferguson and Smith’s meta-analysis was pre-registered.)

Such researchers also did not set out in advance what kind of numbers would be required to show that the criminal justice system is racist. “Put simply: it is helpful to know what data we’d expect to see if the theory is wrong and what the threshold for rejecting the theory might be. Without such clear guidelines, theories may persist endlessly despite having weak evidence,” Ferguson and Smith wrote.


A prior meta-study looking for racial bias in juvenile criminal sentences, for example, also found no statistically significant evidence of racism. Yet the Northeastern University professor who was its lead author, writing in the Journal of Criminal Justice, did not make that finding the paper’s takeaway. Instead, he disputed his own evidence, writing: “However, simple claims that race does not matter are also not supported by existing knowledge,” concluding the situation was “nuanced,” because, in certain sub-categories, the numbers differed slightly by race—even though if racism were actually to blame, such factors would be across the board, and all in one direction.

“Overall, the criminal justice system appears to be remarkably neutral, at least as relates to these issues, either when compared to the historical US criminal justice system, or historical systems throughout history,” the authors of the new study found.

They said that progressive academics who misrepresent their own data — whether due to incompetence, the prioritization of ideology over social science, or the desire to publish a paper with a dramatic finding — may be causing real harm to society.

“We note the possibility 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,” the paper said.

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