Visiting Scholar Larisa Heiphetz on People’s Perceptions of Punishment and the Criminal Justice System

January 27, 2020

Current RSF visiting scholar Larisa Heiphetz (Columbia University) recently published a paper co-authored with James P. Dunlea (Columbia University), “Children's and adults' understanding of punishment and the criminal justice system,” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study examines how children and adults perceive people who have been incarcerated as well as the role that age and experience with the criminal justice system play in these perceptions. The article demonstrates that children link punishment with certain behaviors and are more likely than adults to attribute the reason for punishment to a person’s internal characteristics. Like adults, children tend to underestimate the impact of societal factors such as poverty and inequality on incarceration outcomes. Interview questions included open-ended inquiries such as “What is prison?” and “Why do you think people break the law?” as well as more closed inquiries that invited participants to agree or disagree with various explanations for why people become incarcerated. Another component of this project explored differences in attitudes towards incarcerated individuals between children of incarcerated parents and children whose parents were not incarcerated. Interestingly, children in both groups were more likely to explain law-breaking by pointing to internal or behavioral characteristics than to societal factors.  The authors conclude that while the perceived link between punishment and behavior remains stable across the stages of development, essentialist views of the relationship between internal characteristics and punishment wane over time. Overall, neither children nor adults interviewed for this project viewed societal inequality and incarceration as directly connected. 

Dunlea and Heiphetz identify several areas for future research and interventions. The authors point to the possibility that changing how adults talk to children about punishment (i.e., avoiding statements such as “bad people go to prison”) may change how children understand the connection between internal characteristics and incarceration. They also identify the need for further research to better understand how essentialist views of people’s internal characteristics may increase the stigma associated with incarceration, and for better education about the impact of social inequality on incarceration. 

The authors’ research was recently featured in an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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