When placed on probation (or parole), offenders are given terms with which they must comply. Anger management therapy is a common requirement that must be completed in order to satisfy probation. The goal of requiring anger management is to reduce recidivism and anger management can be helpful for participants, especially when it is rooted in evidence-based practices (although others note that effectiveness of anger management therapy is unknown). However, anger therapy can be extremely burdensome, requiring participants to not only take several hours of their time to attend, but also might require resources (time and money) to get to the class and a monetary fee to enroll. These barriers can result in people not completing their anger management requirement (i.e., noncompliance) and revocation of probation.
Requiring the burden of anger management therapy is concerning if the judge’s decision to assign anger management is influenced by biases (rather than the offender’s criminogenic needs and the details of the original crime). For example, men or racial/ethnic minorities are often perceived to be more aggressive and dangerous than their female or Caucasian counterparts, especially when masculine features such as a square jaw are prominent. Judges in particular have already been found to demonstrate this bias by giving longer sentences to African Americans and men. Thus, it is possible that this bias could carryover to decisions about requiring anger management as a probation condition.
In Racial/Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Anger Management Therapy as a Probation Condition, Bailey and colleagues (2020) probationer race/ethnicity and gender influenced judicial decisions to require anger management. They collected data in four counties in Southern Texas about anger management sentences, probationer race/ethnicity and gender, as well as other variables (e.g., offense, judge). An exploratory analysis revealed that Caucasian women were the least likely to be assigned anger management, while African American men were the most likely to be assigned anger management.
The individual effects of race/ethnicity and gender on anger management requirements also identified bias in these decisions after controlling for the details of the offense. African Americans were 1.7 times more likely to be assigned anger management than Caucasians; however, there was no difference between Caucasians and Hispanics in assignment of anger management. Men were also 1.7 times more likely to be assigned anger management than women.
These findings highlight even more examples of potential unconscious bias in the system. Placing burdensome requirements on certain types of offenders (i.e., African American men) not only results in these offenders expending greater resources, but also reduces the likelihood that these offenders will have their probation revoked and be incarcerated. However, we wanted to point out some limitations of the study. Researchers labeled crimes as either violent or nonviolent, did not consider the mitigators or aggravators of each individual crime, and also never measures the actual level of anger in probationers.
We need to take steps to make sure that anger management is an effective solution for probationers before requiring it. But, more importantly, we need to find a way to ensure sentencing is fair. That might require more research on reducing bias in the legal system but also openness to reform in the system.