|Skin tone correlates with sentencing and time served for recent black female prison convicts in North Carolina (United States).|
For example, blacks are over-represented by a factor of three in jail and prison relative to their proportion of the population (40% of inmates yet only 13% of the population). This is well-known (or should be well-known) in the United States, but less well-known is discrimination within racial groups, e.g. based on skin tone.
Plenty of research has shown that blacks with a lighter skin tone have a greater chance of success in life. This crosses over into the judicial system: black males (e.g. in Mississippi) with a lighter skin tone receive a more lenient prison sentence than those with a darker skin tone.
Is the same true for black women? Given the facts that black men are stereotyped as violent, black women are stereotyped as lazy, and attractive convicts receive more lenient sentences, it's challenging to speculate as to whether black women experience similar intra-racial disparities in the United States judicial system as black men.
Jill Viglione (Villanova University, United States) and coworkers have investigated the role of skin tone on sentencing and time served among a large group of recent black female prison convicts. They found that a lighter skin tone correlates with a significantly shorter sentence and earlier release.
This research is complimentary to a 2010 study which investigated possible racism among devoted basketball fans, and experimental confirmation of the "broken window theory" in 2008.
Tracking intra-racial disparities.
The scientists examined a group of over 12,000 black women prison convicts in North Carolina from 1995 through mid-2009. Of particular interest was the maximum possible servable term and the actual time served.
The North Carolina Department of Corrections tracks certain information about each inmate to faciliate prisoner identification in case of misconduct or escape. This information includes inmate hair color, eye color, height, weight, and body build.
Most relevant to this study, skin tone is also recorded. Light skin tone is assigned a code of 1, and dark skin tone is assigned a code of 0.
As noted by Viglione and coworkers, one can imagine that different correctional officers have different opinions as to what constitutes "light" and "dark" skin. However, this means that if a statistically significant correlation between skin tone and judicial outcomes is found, it's especially noteworthy due to the large inherent extent of noise in the data.
It turns out that only 4% of the black women were noted as possessing a light skin tone. This suggests that corrections officers viewed white women as the standard for a light skin tone.
However, due to the 12,000+ size of the total sample, this results in a large subset of black women (several hundred) designated as possessing a light skin tone. Women were excluded from the analysis if they had been sentenced prior to 1995, or had been sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The scientists also investigated other possibly relevant prisoner variables. These include correctional officer assessment of whether the women were "thin" upon incarceration, criminal background, the number of convictions at sentencing, conviction for robbery or homicide, misconducts during incarceration, and conviction date.
Skin tone and judicial outcomes.
Black women who were perceived as possessing a light skin tone were sentenced to roughly 12% less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone. Being thin, convicted more recently, not having prior convictions, and not being convicted of robbery or homicide were also correlated with shorter sentencing durations (approximately 32% of variance in the data).
Black women who were perceived as possessing a light skin tone served roughly 11% less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone. Being thin, convicted more recently, not having prior convictions, not being convicted of robbery or homicide, and not having disciplinary infractions while in prison were also correlated with less time served (approximately 28% of variance in the data).
Black women who were perceived as possessing a light skin tone received considerably more lenient sentences, and spent considerably less time in prison, than other black women. Other possible mitigating factors considered in the study cannot explain these results in their entirely, and a statistical analysis suggests that data outliers didn't alter the fundamental results.
In summary, being perceived as more white is correlated with significant judicial leniency among recent black women prison convicts in North Carolina.
Study limitations and concluding remarks.
A limitation of this study is that it did not rely on photographs, so other possible mitigating facial features (e.g. possessing a broad nose) were not considered. Furthermore, for the same reason, a quantitative analysis of skin tone vs judicial outcomes could not be performed.
Other judicial outcomes, e.g. probation time, could have also been considered. This and other analyses would add to a more complete assessment of judicial outcomes.
This proven correlation between skin tone and judicial outcomes doesn't absolutely prove that skin tone directly causes shorter sentences and earlier release for recent black female prison convicts in North Carolina ("correlation is not the same as causation"). However, it's hard for me to envision what these intervening factors may be, and there's clearly a strong link between the two.
NOTE: The scientists did not list any funding sources for their research.
Viglione, J., Hannon, L., & DeFina, R. (2011). The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders The Social Science Journal, 48 (1), 250-258 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.08.003