Life support for ailing hypotheses

Modes of summarizing the evidence for racial discrimination in sentencing

Abstract

A recent review concluded that the weight of available evidence contradicts a hypothesis of widespread overt racial discrimination in sentencing in the United States. Yet brief summaries of this body of research, found in textbooks, monographs, and the literature review sections of journal articles, commonly conveyed the opposite impression, sustaining an image of extensive support for the hypothesis. These summaries are examined to determine how this misleading impression was conveyed. Five common practices are identified:

  1. 1.

    Selective Citation: A biased selection of studies were reviewed or cited.

  2. 2.

    Letting the Evidence Speak for Itself: Overrepresentation of blacks in prison or among the executed relative to their share of the population was noted, with readers left to “draw their own conclusions.”

  3. 3.

    The Mixed Bag: Impressive lists of studies supposedly supporting a discrimination hypothesis were padded, by lumping together studies concerning a variety of criminal justice processes besides sentencing, and various legally irrelevant defendant traits besides race.

  4. 4.

    Research Democracy-“All Studies are Created Equal”: Equal weight was implicitly given to all studies regardless of methodological rigor, in a field where it was the least rigorous studies which were most likely to support the discrimination hypothesis.

  5. 5.

    Magnanimous Neutrality: The available evidence was described as “mixed” or “ambiguous,” which, while technically accurate, was a misleading description of evidence which largely contradicted the discrimination hypothesis.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Balkan, S., Berger, R. J., & Schmidt, J.Crime and Deviance in America: A Critical Approach. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1980.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Braithwaite, J. Inequality, Crime, and Public Policy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Braithwaite, J. The myth of social class and crime reconsidered.American Sociological Review, 1981,46, 36–58.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Burke, P. J., & Turk, A. T. Factors affecting postarrest dispositions: A model for analysis. Social Problems, 1975,22, 313–332.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Chiricos, T. G., and Waldo, G. P. Socioeconomic status and criminal sentencing: An empirical assessment of a conflict proposition,American Sociological Review, 1975,40: 753–772.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Farnsworth, M., & Horan, P. M. Separate justice: An analysis of race differences in court processes,Social Science Research, 1980,9, 381–399.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Glass, G. V., McGraw, B., & Smith, M. L.Meta-analysis in Social Research. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Gordon, R. A. Research on I.Q., race and delinquency: taboo or not taboo. in E. Sagarin (Ed.),Taboos in Criminology. Beverly Hills: Sage, pp. 37–66.

  9. Hagan, J. Extra-legal attributes and criminal sentencing: An assessment of a sociological viewpoint.Law and Society Review, 1974,8, 357–383.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hindelang, M. J. Equality under the law.Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 1969,60, 306–313.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Kleck, G. Racial discrimination in criminal sentencing: A critical evaluation of the evidence with additional evidence on the death penalty.American Sociological Review, 1981;46, 783–805.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kleck, G. On the use of self-report data to determine the class distribution of criminal and delinquent behavior.American Sociological Review, 1982,47, 427–433.

    Google Scholar 

  13. La Free, G. D. The effect of sexual stratification by race on official reactions to rape.American Sociological Reveiw, 1980,45, 842–854.

    Google Scholar 

  14. La Free, G. D. Official reactions to social problems: Police decisions in sexual assault cases.Social Problems, 1981,28, 582–594.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Pope, C. E. The influence of social and legal factors on sentence dispositions: A preliminary analysis of offender-based transaction statistics.Journal of Criminal Justice, 1977,5, 203–221.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Smith, M. L. Sex bias in counseling and psychotherapy.Psychological Bulletin, 1980,87, 392–407.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Spohn, C., Gruhl, J., & Welch, S. The effect of race on sentencing: A re-examination of an unsettled question.Law & Society Review, 1981/1982,16, 71–88.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Sutherland, E. H. & Cressey, D. R.Criminology, Eighth ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Thomson, R. J., & Zingraff, M. T. Detecting sentencing disparity: Some problems and evidence.American Journal of Sociology, 1981,86, 869–880.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Tittle, C. R., Villemez, W. J., & Smith, D. A. The myth of social class and criminality: An empirical assessment of the empirical evidence.American Sociological Review, 1978,43, 643–656.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Tittle, C. R., Villemez, W. J., and Smith, D. A. One step forward, two steps back: More on the class/ criminality controversy.American Sociological Review, 1982,47, 435–438.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Unnever, J. D., Frazier, C. E., & Henretta, J. C. Race differences in criminal sentencing.The Sociological Quarterly, 1980,21, 197–205.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Williams, F. H. Double jeopardy: Black and poor.Congressional Record, 1969,115, 3092–3095.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Additional information

Read at the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology, November 4, 1982 in Toronto, Canada.

About this article

Cite this article

Kleck, G. Life support for ailing hypotheses. Law Hum Behav 9, 271–285 (1985). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01044505

Download citation

Keywords

  • Social Psychology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Equal Weight
  • Journal Article
  • Life Support