Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey

Poll: 59% of Democrats Say Criminal Justice System Treats White Americans More Fairly Than Minorities, 62% of Republicans Say System Treats All Equally

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On Monday, protesters in Ferguson, MO continued their fourth day of renewed protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Protestors brought signs and t-shirts with slogans including "Black Lives Matter" and "My Blackness is Not a Weapon." The incident has reignited public debate over accountability and racial bias in the nation's police departments and the criminal justice system more generally.

The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds 44 percent of Americans believe the criminal justice system in the United States treats white Americans more fairly than black and Hispanic Americans. Another 45 percent believe the system treats all racial groups the same, 6 percent think the system favors black and Hispanic Americans, and 5 percent aren't sure.

When it comes to perceptions of systemic bias in the criminal justice system, Democrats are significantly more likely to perceive bias than Republicans and independents. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats believe America's criminal justice system treats white Americans more fairly than minorities; only 35 percent think the system treats all fairly. In stark contrast, 62 percent of Republicans believe the system treats everyone equally under the law, while 26 percent say white Americans are treated better. Independents are divided with 40 percent who say the justice system is fair, and 37 percent who believes it's biased against minorities.

African-Americans and Hispanics are also significantly more likely than white Americans to perceive systemic bias. Fully 83 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics say whites are treated more fairly than minorities. Only 34 percent of white Americans agree that the system gives them preferential treatment; instead, 53 percent believe the system treats all Americans equally.

Younger Americans are much more likely to perceive bias in the system than older Americans, and this cannot be fully explained by greater diversity among younger cohorts. Among 18-34 year olds, 54 percent say the justice system is biased in favor of white Americans, while 40 percent think it treats everyone the same. Americans 35-54 are evenly divided with slightly more (47%) perceiving bias than equal treatment (42%). However, among Americans over 55, a majority—52 percent—says the justice system is fair to everyone, 34 percent perceive a bias in favor of Caucasians.

There is even a slight difference between men and women on perception of bias. A plurality (49%) of women believes white Americans are treated more fairly and 40 percent think the justice system treats all equally. Conversely, 50 percent of men believe the system is fair, and 39 percent believe white Americans are treated more fairly.

Reason-Rupe also finds that Americans living in urban areas are more likely to perceive unequal treatment in favor of Caucasians in the criminal justice system: 55 to 37 percent. In suburban areas, a plurality (47%) believes the system is fair to everyone while 41 percent perceive a bias against minorities. Conversely, a majority (54 percent) of Americans in rural areas say the criminal justice system treats everyone the same, while 34 percent perceive a bias in favor of white Americans.

When we compare these results to the average elected official, such as those in Congress, we find that politicians come from the very demographic groups least likely to believe there is bias in the criminal justice system:

The average member of Congress in 2014 is 57 years old, college-educated, male, and Caucasian. Using a statistical technique, we find a person with the same demographics as the average member of Congress has a 65% chance of believing the criminal justice system in America is fair to all racial groups. In contrast, a similar nonwhite female who is 40-years-old is 26 percent likely to agree.

Basically, those in elected office are most likely to come from demographic groups least likely to detect bias in the criminal justice system. This may help explain why Ferguson residents are so upset—they feel those in power do not believe them nor care about them.

This does not mean that one group is necessarily completely right while the other is completely wrong. This also does not suggest that racial animus implicitly drives those who don't perceive bias in the system. However, the very presence of these stark demographic and partisan differences incontrovertibly merits our close attention. Yet, these very differences are what make constructive debate over criminal justice reform so challenging.

America stands for equal treatment under the law predicated on the belief that all individuals' share inherent equal dignity. However, these tenants are nothing more than empty promises if the state's most powerful tool—its police power—is misused or applied inconsistently. If police power is misapplied, partisan and racial perception differences make it even more difficult to have a constructive debate about it. Until there is greater mutual willingness to listen to the experiences of others, reform and renewal may remain elusive.

The Reason-Rupe national telephone poll, executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, conducted live interviews with 1004 adults on cell phones (503) and landlines (501) October 1-6, 2014. The poll's margin of error is +/-3.8%. Full poll results can be found here. including poll toplines (pdf)  and crosstabs (xls). 

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  1. something something Millenials (PBUT) something something….something

  2. Pollz… pollzz… my precious pollzzzzz

  3. 100% of me thinks more polls are coming on this issue.

  4. Also, does this mean the next Reason magazine will focus on the criminal justice system? Make it a good one, Reason.

  5. The justice system is a joke.There are so many people arrested,of all colors, that are doing no harm to anyone.When a guy goes to prison for putting seafood in the ‘wrong’ package we’er doomed.The war on drugs has always been a war on minorities.

  6. Both wrong. Wealth and political connection matter.

    1. My perspective is from California but who you know and what you can do for them is all that matters in regards to “justice”. It’s weird how a normal guy never gets driven home by the police after causing a car accident and later gets off with the Ambien defense.

    2. Exactly. And with the DOJ and IRS of the last 6 years which party your political connections are if you don’t want to be arrested for making a Youtube video or get audited.

  7. I don’t see why we can’t just can’t uncritically believe everything a police officer says.

    If the cop that is still in hiding and hasn’t faced any sort of challenge or cross-examination of his statements says that Mike Brown punched him in the face, then it must obviously be true.

    Why would one of our brave police officers lie about something like that?

  8. They would never lie, which is why they are so eager to deploy full-time police body-cameras. Oh, wait…

  9. “59% of Democrats Say Criminal Justice System Treats White Americans More Fairly Than Minorities”

    How is someone treated more fairly? Shouldnt it say ‘more favorably’ like the other option?

    1. That would require another poll.

    2. You know, less unfairly. As in, it treats everyone unfairly, but white people get stripped of their right to a jury trial by being hit with excessive charges and a plea deal, whereas black people just get shot in the street.

  10. Speaking as a Republican, I would say that the Justice system treats everyone equally, but I’m just trolling the pollsters.

  11. “mutual willingness to listen” is the key phrase. I am coming to believe that the Twitterfication of our political discourse is killing our ability to have a conversation. It’s all snark and “gotcha” and I’m really getting tired of it.

  12. “Stop killing us”?

    How about you stop assaulting shopkeeps?
    How about you stop assaulting police officers?
    How about you stop assaulting neighborhood watchmen?
    How about you stop shooting people from moving cars?
    How about you stop shooting people for their tennis shoes?
    How about you stop shooting people for wearing the wrong color t-shirt?
    How about you stop looting and burning?

    1. You mean, act civilized? That’s racist!

  13. So nobody (especially the people making up the poll) knows the meaning of the word “fair.” But after 35 years of teaching, I already knew that.

  14. The criminal injustice system is a complete wreck and an utter failure. No one gets justice because the system is completely unable to deliver it. It unfair on a good day, and a complete disaster on the next. We can do better, but not within the current system. Design a new system and replace this one. Fire the lawyers, administrators, police and lawmakers and start over.

  15. Can we see the results sorted by people who answered a land line survey vs people who answered a cell phone survey?

  16. “these tenants are nothing more than empty promises”

    Ms. Ekins u might shuld all-ready lookup the werd “tenet” b4 u loose you’re job.

  17. The average member of Congress in 2014 is 57 years old, college-educated, male, and Caucasian

    While this is true, it is a bit odd to use “average” on categories that are binary or effectively binary or trinary.

    The “average” member of Congress will be male until half-plus-one are female, then the “average” will be female.

    This tells us nothing at all useful; what might be useful is the deviation from the rate in the general American population.

    This is even more so with race, and perhaps education.

    “The average American” is still caucasian, I think, at least for a little while.

    (But then all the Census stuff seems to always tell me that Hispanic is really a subset of “white”, not a “race”, but an “ethnicity”.

    I wish they’d all make up their !@#@^ minds.)

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