Working as Intended: Race, Class, Gender and the Law

Frank R. Baumgartner, Marty A. Davidson, II, and Kaneesha R. Johnson
Under advanced contract, University of Chicago Press.
(Book project currently in progress; expected submission summer 2024.)

In this book, we make use of a comprehensive database covering every arrest over seven years in a single state, providing a comprehensive look into a state’s criminal legal system from start to finish. How many people are arrested for which types of crimes? Who are those people: rich, poor, young, old, male, female, black, white, Native American, or some other race, residing in urban, rural, small towns, or a big city? What are they charged with? What are the consequences of these interactions with the criminal justice system? Are individuals punished in similar manners for similar crimes? Do the poor and the wealthy come out of the process with similar outcomes? Who gets a lawyer, who defends themselves, and who is assigned legal assistance by the court system? How often do people go to trial before a jury, and how often are they found innocent at trial? Do those who plead guilty before trial come out better than those who maintain their innocence? What punishments are eventually meted out? Are there systematic or idiosyncratic disparities in who receives harsher or more lenient treatment, and who escapes law enforcement altogether, though they may violate a law?

By describing from head to toe the internal workings of the North Carolina criminal legal system, we seek to understand how the state constructs social orderings. Which groups does the legal code target and which ones does it protect? Which behaviors are outlawed, and which crimes have enhanced punishments depending on the characteristics of the victim? Did the state legislature intend for this targeting (and protection) to occur, or do any observed disparities represent an unintended consequence, a simple artifact of differential behavior? That is, we seek to understand whether observed disparities are mere coincidences, or whether they represent the result that the state legislature had in mind when it outlawed this or that behavior.

Figure 1 shows rates of contact, per 100 individuals of a given demographic characteristic, with the criminal justice system. Young men are much more likely to be arrested than ollder individuals, men more than women, and men of color more than white or Asian men.


Figure 2 shows how this plays out geographically in different regions of the state.


Figure 3 shows that communities with greater numbers of police officers per capita see higher rates of arrest, but only for minority individuals, not for whites and Asians.


These are three simple illustrations of the type of analyses we are doing in the book. Crucially, we go beyond these simple demonstrations of racially disparate levels of contact with the criminal justice system. We do this in several ways, including by estimating income levels by using home addresses and local housing values; we estimate neighborhood-specific effects; and we therefore have a much richer analysis of social identity than only by race and gender as is common in the literature. More importantly, we deal directly with legislative intent. We do this by conducting a "deep dive" into several parts of the law: the traffic code (from the 1930s), anti-protesting and rioting laws (from the 1960s), and the "war on drugs" (from the 1980s). In each case, we can document that the current impact of the sections of the criminal code that were created during these legislative episodes is highly disproportionate with a heavy impact on minority communities. But we can also show that this was precisely the intent of the legislature when these laws were passed. Therefore, we connect discriminatory legislative intent at the time when important laws were passed with current-day disparate racial impact.

Our book is currently in progress and is based on over 13 million observations, every arrest in the state of North Carolina from 2013 through 2019. We have so far produced some conference papers and a book proposal, which are listed below. All the work is subject to change and revision as we compile our final results and analyses. We expect to complete the full manuscript and submit it to final review by the anonymous peer reviewers for the University of Chicago Press in late summer 2023. Comments are welcome, of course.

Click on the links below to read various preliminary reports and publications:

About the authors:

    Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    Kaneesha R. Johnson is Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill. She received her PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2023, her LLM from the University of Chicago in 2022, and her BA from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016.

    Marty A. Davidson, II is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Michigan in 2023 and his BA from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016.

(Last updated, September 2, 2023 )