Documentation Status, Neighborhood Affluence, and Police Perception are Interlinked

Did you know that your attitude and perception of the criminal justice system can be influenced by the type of neighborhood you live in? Compare someone living in a neighborhood with graffiti, open drug activity, poverty and crime (i.e., a “disordered neighborhood”) to someone living in a neighborhood with manicured lawns and low crime rates (i.e., an affluent neighborhood). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the person living in a disordered neighborhood is more likely to lack trust in the justice system and see it as less legitimate than the person living in an affluent neighborhood.


Although there are many reasons someone might live in a disordered neighborhood, undocumented families in particular might make this decision in order to remain undetected and avoid deportation. Moreover, undocumented families might have other reasons to question the legitimacy of the legal system. In “Documentation Status, Neighborhood Disorder, and Attitudes Towards Police and Courts among Latina Immigrants,” Cavanagh, Dalzell, and Cauffman (2020) examined how documentation status, neighborhood disorder and attitudes towards the justice system interact.


Cavanaugh and colleagues (2020) interviewed documented and undocumented Latina women who lived in affluent and disordered neighborhoods about their trust in the justice system. They found that, regardless of documentation status, women living in affluent neighborhoods saw the justice system more positively (rated the police and courts as effective, fair, and lawful). Documentation status did influence perceptions of women living in disordered neighborhoods, though; undocumented women viewed police and courts more negatively than documented women. The authors suggest that this difference may stem from the high-level of policing in disordered neighborhoods, such that the residents (especially the undocumented residents) perceive police, and therefore the justice system more broadly, as discriminatory and fear-inducing.


These findings provide an important piece of information on how attitudes about the justice system are built. Documentation and neighborhood quality both influence perceptions of the justice system, with undocumented immigrants living in disordered neighborhoods having the most negative attitudes about the justice system, seeing it as unlawful, untrustworthy, and unfair. Although it might not seem very important on its face, people who view the legal system as legitimate are actually more likely to follow the law. On the other hand, individuals with greater distrust in the justice system due to racial profiling and discriminatory policies are more likely to break the law. Consistent with the social psychological phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy, when individuals are treated like or labeled as criminals, they end up behaving in ways that matches that expectations (i.e., begin to act like criminals). Therefore, legislators should reconsider policies that intend to alienate immigrants, such as the 2010 Arizona policy which allowed police officers to request documentation, essentially encouraging police to engage in racial profiling. Legislators should be cautious because these policies can push immigrants into disordered neighborhoods, and further increase their distrust towards the justice system, leading into an overall increase of crime.

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