Skip to main content
CJ listing black overlay list overlay FA listing

Faculty Spotlight

How hidden biases affect public opinion on sentencing

How hidden biases affect public opinion on sentencing by Dana Yates




Department of Criminology


Department of Criminology


Research finds that racialized identity plays a role in views on offenders

By: Dana Yates

With funding from Ryerson and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Singh and Sprott used sentencing as a lens to explore the broadly held belief that racism does not exist in Canada – or at least not to the same degree as in the United States – because Canadians are considered diverse, tolerant and accommodating. In particular, the researchers were curious if the racism would be overt or covert, working through negative stereotypes or perceptions.

Singh and Sprott developed four scenarios involving a male offender (with and without a criminal record) who commits an armed robbery. The brief vignettes were identical, except for the racialized identity of the offender.

A research assistant then used the scenarios to poll 500 Torontonians on their views toward sentencing. To maintain impartiality, the assistant didn't know the order of the vignettes before approaching people on the street to participate in the research.

The goal of the survey was to elicit respondents’ sentencing preferences (a prison sentence or a community-based sanction) and their perceptions of how dangerous and guilty an offender is, and his risk of committing another crime. Overall, 27 per cent of respondents thought the “Black” offender was "extremely dangerous,” compared to only 17 per cent who felt that way about the “white” offender. The perception of dangerousness was then used to justify harsher sentences, say the researchers. But there was also a small independent effect of the offender’s racialized identity after controlling for dangerousness and other factors such that the Black offender still received harsher sentences than the white offender.

Read full article


How hidden biases affect public opinion on sentencing by Dana Yates