Refuting the narrative of a “systemically racist” criminal justice system

In December 2023, sociology professors Christopher Ferguson and Sven Smith of Stetson University published a paper entitled “Race, class, and criminal adjudication: Is the US criminal justice system as biased as is often assumed? A meta-analytic review.” Find a review by the Manhattan Institute here.

The research involved analytic review of over 51 studies published between 2005 and 2022, and it pushes back strongly on the narratives around systemic racism and “racial disparities” in our criminal justice system.

The authors note that despite evidence of a racially biased criminal justice system being “consistently weak…scholarly narratives have too often ignored this in favor of the systemic racism narrative.”

According to the analysis racial disproportions in our criminal justice system are the result of racially disproportionate offense levels, not “systems” that treat offenders differently based on race — a finding remarkably consistent to Center of the American Experiment’s findings in our July 2023 report “Dispelling the Myth of Unwarranted Racial Disparities in Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System.”

“Overall results suggested that neither class nor race biases for criminal adjudications for either violent or property crimes could be reliably detected…. Taken together, these results do not support beliefs that the US criminal justice system is systemically biased at current. Negativity bias and the overinterpretation of statistically significant “noise” from large sample studies appear to have allowed the perception or bias to be maintained among scholars, despite a weak evidentiary base.  

Ferguson and Smith

The authors aptly describe the danger of perpetuating the narrative that our criminal justice system is systemically racist.

“The issue of racial and class justice as it relates to criminal adjudication is an important one. The social contract depends on faith in the criminal justice system as a neutral arbiter. Perceptions and experiences of bias in the criminal justice system reduce public confidence and lead to social discord. 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 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 concludes by reminding us of what should be obvious — it is good news that our criminal justice system is operating in an unbiased manner. 

“Overall, this is a cause for optimism even if we must remain vigilant for negative shifts in the future.  Continuing portrayals of judicial sentencing within the US as discriminatory are misleading and most likely doing more harm than good.”