Volume 52   Number 2 Spring 2019

Criminal Justice Interest Group

Edited by Jessica Shaw, Boston College of Social Work

The Criminal Justice Interest Group Column features the work and ideas of our members. We encourage readers to reach out to the authors if they are interested in learning more or exploring potential opportunities for collaboration. We also invite readers to join one of our upcoming Learning Community Series presentations in which Criminal Justice Interest Group members share their work virtually to foster a learning community. More information, and recording of prior presentations, can be viewed at

One Piece of the Puzzle: Publicly Held Stereotypes about People with a History of Criminal Justice Involvement

Written by Candalyn B. Rade and Amanda Gold, Penn State University Harrisburg

People with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system experience stereotypes and discrimination at both interpersonal and institutional levels. Within the U.S., people express negative attitudes toward adults with a criminal history, often varying based on individual differences in belief systems and prior contact with people who have a criminal history (Hirschfield & Piquero, 2010; Rade et al., 2016). Moreover, labeling based on criminal history and subsequent stigmatization can lead to differential treatment of people because of their label (e.g., Murphy et al., 2011). Evidence of inequality and institutional discrimination based on such labels and one’s criminal history has been documented across many vital components of community transition, namely employment, healthcare, and housing (e.g., Frank et al., 2014; Pager, 2003; Wakefield & Eggen, 2010).

This article discusses the preliminary results of ongoing research seeking to bring together theory and methodology from across related disciplines to understand and address the stereotypes experienced by justice-involved groups. Rooted within community psychology values of social justice and equity, we draw from criminal justice research and applied social psychological theory to increase understanding of interpersonal and institutional stigmatization and discrimination, leading to change across these interacting levels. First, we present preliminary results of a pilot study testing the application of Stereotype Content Model to groups with varying criminal histories. Second, we discuss next steps for continued community-partnered research.

Pilot Study

Stereotype Content Model (SCM) from social psychological theory presents a systematic approach for assessing the two central dimensions of stereotypes—warmth and competence (Cuddy et al., 2007; Fiske et al., 2002). The warmth dimension is associated with assessment of someone’s intentions, including the degree of trustworthiness, sincerity, and overall good nature. The competence dimension is associated with assessment of someone’s capability to achieve those intentions, including the degree of skill and intelligence. These dimensions predict emotional (pity, admiration, contempt, envy) and behavioral responses (facilitation, harm) toward members of the stereotyped group. Although extensively used to assess various social groups across the world, few studies have successfully implemented a SCM framework to evaluate stereotypes toward people with a history of criminal justice involvement. Prior studies have primarily been limited to investigations of punitiveness (Cite-Lussier, 2016) and wrongfully convicted persons (Clown & Leach, 2015; Thompson et al., 2012). Yet, a more informed understanding of stereotypes toward people with a criminal history is a first step to addressing discriminatory behaviors, and the associated reentry barriers.

We conducted exploratory research with a student sample from a northeastern university to test the application of SCM to better understand stereotypes toward people with a history of criminal justice involvement. Respondents were recruited through a course research requirement mechanism and completed all survey items online. After the removal of respondent data for failure to pass attention-check items and extensive missing data, responses from 259 students are included in these analyses. Half of respondents identified as female (n = 135, 52.1%) with an average age of 19.26 years (SD = 1.83, Range = 18-32). Half of respondents identified as White or Caucasian (n = 129, 50.2%). The next most common racial and ethnic identities reported were Asian or Asian American (n = 78, 30.4%), Hispanic or Latinx (n = 19, 7.4%), and Black or African American (n = 18, 7.0%). Christianity was the most commonly identified religious affiliation (50.0% total; Catholic n = 52; Protestant n = 48; Orthodox n = 16), followed by no religious affiliation (n = 70, 27.1%). Overall, respondents reported moderate political beliefs (44.7%, n = 115). By comparison, 28.8% identified as slightly to extremely liberal (n = 74) and the remaining endorsed varying degrees of conservative political beliefs. Few respondents reported a personal history of arrest (n = 5, 1.9%) or conviction (n = 6, 2.3%), but none reported being incarcerated since the age of 18.

Consistent with prior research (e.g., Cuddy et al., 2007; Fiske et al., 2002), respondents were asked to rate 35 groups (e.g., ‘people who are in the middle class’, ‘people who are unemployed’, ‘people with a sexual offense history’) using a 5-point scale on their degree of warmth and competence as viewed by society. The competence scale was composed of five items (competent, confident, independence, competitive, intelligent) and the warmth scale contained three items (warm, good-natured, sincere). Competence and warmth mean scores for each group were averaged across respondents. Hierarchical cluster analysis was used to determine the number of clusters based on the agglomeration statistics and dendrogram. A 5-cluster model emerged as the best solution, which was examined through k-means cluster analysis to identify the groups belonging to each cluster.

Results revealed that people with a history of criminal justice involvement are generally rated as low in warmth and low in competence, with the exception of people with a non-violent offense history (see figure 1).


Indeed, the Low Competence-Low Warmth (LC-LW) cluster was comprised exclusively of 10 of the evaluated groups with a criminal history, plus people who abuse substances and alcohol. By comparison, the other non-justice-involved groups fell into higher-rated clusters, consistent with prior research. For example, scientists, business executives, and teachers were all rated as high in competence and moderate-to-high in warmth (HC-MHW cluster). Moreover, the nature of stereotypes varied across subgroups of offense history. People with nonviolent offense histories were consistently rated as higher in warmth and competence compared to other offense history subgroups.

Concurrent Research and Next Steps

This pilot study examined the application of SCM to understanding public stereotypes toward people with a criminal offense history and the nuanced differences between subgroups. As anticipated, respondents generally reported negative stereotypes (comprised of perceptions of low warmth and low competence) toward those with a criminal history. Findings upheld models presented in other disciplines, such as organizational management and human resources (e.g., Jones Young & Powell, 2010), regarding the possible role of perceived warmth and competence ratings in stereotype formation. Indeed, our pilot study, along with previous theory development work (Rade et al., 2018), provides foundational support for concurrent research. Specifically, focus groups are underway to explore the underlying mechanisms of these interpersonal stereotypes and possible direction for later work intervening to reduce negative stereotypes and increase mindsets regarding growth and successful transitions.

However, publicly-held stereotypes and interpersonal discrimination do not occur in a vacuum, rather they are among many factors contributing to institutional-level problems such as discriminatory hiring policies and access to community resources. Therefore, we must consider the broader contextual, institutional, and systemic factors at play. Especially in our role as community psychologists, we must look beyond the more traditional lens of placing primary responsibility and intervention focus on individuals with a history of justice system involvement, and rather seek to influence critical second-order change. To this end, we are currently conducting a mixed-methods evaluation of prison-to-community transition work by local coalitions state-wide. This ongoing collaboration with local and state government, service providers, and those with lived experiences is providing a stepping point for our group to engage in applied work that is theoretically-informed, community-generated, and systems-minded.


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