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The U.S. Criminal Justice System: Functional, Flawed, or "F***ed"

Second publication from SPA Assistant Professor TaLisa Carter’s Shades of Justice project finds that student perceptions of the criminal justice system vary by skin tone.

The U.S. criminal justice system, built to enforce laws, protect the public, and deliver justice to those who have committed crimes, has evolved alongside a set of systemic inequities tied to the historic stain of racism, drawing criticism for, among other transgressions, the disproportionate incarceration of Americans of color.

In “‘Fucked Up’: Examining Skin Tone and Student Perceptions of the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” published in November’s Journal of Criminal Justice Education, SPA Assistant Professor TaLisa Carter and SPA PhD student Jazmine Talley examine how students across races and skin tones perceive the U.S. criminal justice system.

The article is one of several tied to Carter’s overarching research project, Shades of Justice.

“Shades of Justice is a research project that started in the classroom,” she said. “I teach a lot of introductory-level courses. I noticed, repeatedly, that while students in those courses expressed interest in working for the criminal legal system, their skin color mattered.”

Lighter-skinned students, she continued, expressed interest in being prosecutors and cops, but darker-skinned students aspired to careers as victim advocates or defense or immigration attorneys. This aligned with previous scholarship suggesting that individuals with darker skin are more likely to have negative perceptions of the criminal legal system, and all other systems, due to negative interactions.

“Darker-skinned people are more likely to face arrest and suspension and have longer sentences in prison,” said Carter. “Even white people [who] get farther away from blond hair, blue eyes, and very pale skin are more likely to be arrested by police officers when pulled over.”

To test out this impression, Carter first deployed an online quantitative survey to 38 participating U.S. universities, engaging over 600 criminology or criminal justice students and measuring their perceptions of the justice system, career aspirations, and skin color.

“The perceptions of students, as future practitioners shaping the system, are super important,” she said. “Increasingly, the criminal legal system seeks to hire people with higher levels of education to handle the complexities of working with justice-involved populations––people with mental health issues, people with substance abuse disorders, etc.––[to better] manage the complexities of humanity at some of its worst moments.”

Next, Carter trained a research team of 12 undergraduate and graduate students to interview 100 of those respondents.

“We matched on skin tone,” she explained. “Light-skinned students interviewed lighter-skinned respondents and so forth down the skin tone continuum. We got 100 interviews done in the summer of 2020, which is a massive undertaking for qualitative studies.”

Thematic analysis of these interviews revealed strong perceptions of the system, as expected from students in the field, and an interesting set of interactions between these perceptions and skin tone. She separated these impressions into three overlapping categories (respondents could choose more than one): “functional,” or doing its job, “flawed,” or in need of improvement, and “’fucked’,” or so broken as to be unfixable.

Across races and skin shades, students were more likely to assess the system as “flawed” (75) and/or “’fucked’” (80); just 29 students proclaimed it to be functional. Light-skinned students were more likely to view the system as doing its job, in line with preexisting scholarship, while non-white respondents were more likely to communicate negative perceptions.

“It is informative that future practitioners are thinking in these terms,” said Carter. “We talk about transforming the criminal legal system, but perhaps the foundation itself needs to be rethought. It shows the complexity of the idea: “fucked,” the worst kind of system in place, the irreparable nature of it, is a really dominant theme throughout. . . and in spite of all these complex emotions that students feel, they still aspire to work in that system.”

These findings, drawn from data representing the “cream of the crop,” have vital implications for practitioners, particularly for HR departments looking to recruit more Black and brown applicants.

“[Job applicants] want to know that they can make a difference,” Carter continued. “Are we allowing people with such aspirations to do that, or are they just plugging holes in the system? Particularly in corrections and policing, the attrition rate is atrocious, partly because the system that we have in place is bigger than their aspirations, their hopes and dreams.”

Carter also emphasizes the lessons for higher education, including listening to students and centering practitioner experience in the classroom. Carter herself is a former correctional officer, and other instructors have worked as police officers, attorneys, judges, and consultants.

“That experiential perspective better prepares students to make real changes as they go out into the field,” she said. “SPA does a great job at this, but I advocate for it everywhere, through internships and exposure, and across skin tone. Also, we really need to pay attention to what our students are saying, how they feel about the material, and how it shapes their trajectory. A great or terrible classroom experience can put people on or off a career path.”

Carter has published two manuscripts using findings from the Shades of Justice project, with two more under review, including a negative case analysis of the current findings, and another two in the works, one of which examines the role of skin tone and skin shade in romantic and/or sexual attraction. Further, as part of SPA’s summer 2023 Public Affairs and Policy Lab, students will use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s colorblind ideology to analyze video data of the 100 interviews, and, with it, the body language of participants, such as discomfort, coloring, facial movements, hand gestures, and fidgeting.

“This theoretical framework explains the comfort level that people have when they engage in conversations about race and racism,” she said. “The plan is to code video data, which is super exciting because it’s not done in the field of criminology often.”

Carter has other projects in the works, including a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of staff identity as they work in treatment programs for justice-involved people with opioid disorders, and a book contract with NYU focused on accountability among corrections professionals.