Colorism and Criminal Case Processing

Awarded Scholars:
Michael Light, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Project Date:
Feb 2021
Award Amount:

We know little about the extent to which colorism, the privileging of lighter-skinned over darker-skinned racial minorities, exists in the criminal justice system and how political, economic, or social conditions might contribute to skin tone inequality in punishment outcomes. Using arrest data from the Texas’s Computerized Criminal History system, sociologist Michael Light will analyze all arrests in 254 Texas counties between 2006 and 2018 to examine the extent to which skin tone inequality is a factor in criminal case processing. He will also characterize the jurisdictional factors that are associated with disparate outcomes. The data include information on the offense and legal characteristics associated with a crime (e.g., type of charge), characteristics of defendants (e.g., criminal history, race/ethnicity, skin color), and other information on case processing for about 8.7 million arrests and 3.7 million defendants. Light will address two questions: 1) Do otherwise similar arrestees caught engaging in the same criminal conduct receive outcomes that vary by their skin tone? 2) Does the effect of skin tone vary by the arrestees’ racial category? Light will examine six outcomes: whether any charges are filed; whether felony charges are filed; whether there is a conviction; whether there is a felony conviction; and whether there is any incarceration; and its length in months. He will also examine geographic variation in the punishment of arrestees with different skin colors and analyze the extent to which political (e.g., voting preferences), economic (e.g., poverty, unemployment), and social (e.g., racial animus) conditions are associated with skin tone inequality in punishment outcomes.


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