Talking About Police, Reform, and Race: What’s Persuasive?

Talking About Police, Reform, and Race: What’s Persuasive?
Is talking about racial bias effective? Many advocates of police reform argue that systemic racial bias plagues the criminal justice system and thus reform is necessary.50 Does this argument encourage people to consider reform? To find out, the survey embedded a small experiment to investigate how telling people the criminal justice system treats African Americans and Latinos unfairly affects their belief that the justice system is overly harsh. (See Appendix H for further details.)
Survey respondents were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 groups. The first group was shown this message: “Some people say the US criminal justice system is unfair to African Americans and Hispanics and so we should consider reforms of the system.” Then both groups were asked: “In general, do you think the criminal justice system in this country is too harsh, too lenient, or about right in its handling of crime?” The following chart shows how considering racial bias affects one’s belief that the system is overly harsh.

Note: Perceptions of harshness in the criminal justice system following exposure to treatment message. Data from the Cato Institute/YouGov November 2015 National Survey.

The racial bias message has a statistically significant effect, especially among liberals.51 On average, priming people to consider racial bias has the effect of convincing the average person who thinks the system is “about right” to instead believe the system is a “little too harsh.” Liberals are already more likely than conservatives to say the justice system is more harsh than lenient — regardless of treatment effect. However, priming people to consider racial bias has the largest effect among “very liberal” respondents. There is only a weak effect among “very conservative” respondents.52 Part of the reason is that conservatives tend not to believe systemic racial bias exists in the criminal justice system whereas liberals do believe this. Consequently, “framing” criminal justice reform in terms of racial bias is more effective for liberals and moderates than among conservatives. Thus, these data indicate that charges of racial bias in the criminal justice system may effectively encourage liberals and moderates to consider reform; however, such charges will persuade few conservatives. Other approaches may be necessary to persuade conservatives to favor criminal justice reform.


50 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

51 (Mt= 3.66, SDt=1.44) (Mc=4.08, SDc=1.44) t(1998)=7.52, p <.001. Appendix H presents results from an OLS regression that finds that the treatment variable and interaction term between ideology and treatment are statistically significant indicating that the treatment may be more persuasive to some ideological groups. Comparisons of means tests indicate the effect was stronger among liberals than among conservatives.

52 Among “very conservative” respondents, t(287)=-1.92, p=.06. See Appendix I for full results.

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