Racial Attributions in the Justice System and Support for Punitive Crime Policies

Mark Peffley, Jon Hurwitz, Jeffery Mondak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


How do members of racial groups explain the large disparity in the way Blacks and Whites are treated by the criminal justice system in the United States? And how do such explanations (attributions) influence support for punitive crime control policies in America, as well as arguments against such policies? Our study of the structure, sources, and consequences of racial attributions in the justice system, using original survey data in Washington state, contributes to the literature in several ways. First, unlike traditional measures of racial prejudice—that is, racial resentment and stereotypes—our measure of racial attributions distinguishes cleanly between dispositional explanations (e.g., Blacks’ aggressive nature) and discrimination. Second, we examine the attributions of three pivotal groups with different experiences with legal authorities: Latinos, Blacks, and Whites. Third, an issue framing experiment demonstrates the power of both attributions for shaping support for the death penalty and arguments against the policy based on racial justice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1032-1058
Number of pages27
JournalAmerican Politics Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Data for this project were gathered under our supervision with the support of The Washington State Supreme Court Minority and Justice Commission, and The State of Washington Administrative Office of the Courts—Washington State Center for Court Research. We thank all involved in this project, and especially Carl McCurley, for their contributions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, © The Author(s) 2017.


  • Blacks
  • Latinos
  • Whites
  • death penalty
  • punitive attitudes
  • racial attitudes
  • racial attributions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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