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One Hundred Tones, One Decision: Exploring Race, Skin Tone, and Motivations for becoming a Criminal Justice Practitioner

Published onMay 24, 2022
One Hundred Tones, One Decision: Exploring Race, Skin Tone, and Motivations for becoming a Criminal Justice Practitioner
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Abstract

Overall, scholarship finds individuals have similar motivations to work in the criminal justice system. However, several studies acknowledge race and gender can influence motivations to work as justice professionals. Absent from the motivation and criminal justice profession literature is the potential role that skin tone plays. This gap is surprising as research firmly establishes people with darker skin complexions are more likely to negatively experience the criminal justice system. And thereby may find working as a criminal justice practitioner less desirable. Taken together, this raises the question, how does skin tone impact motivations to work in the justice system? To address this question, I rely on Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory as well as research on motivations to work in criminal justice system and colorism to consider the role skin tone plays in shaping motivations to become justice professionals. I draw from 100 semi-structured interviews with diverse undergraduate and graduate students from universities across the United States. Findings reveal differences in motivations by skin tone: dark-skinned respondents do not report motivations driven by rewards and consequences. Lighter-skinned respondents are more likely to report aspirations to work in the justice system such as interest, self-fulfillment, and/or enjoyment. The study concludes by discussing policy implications and directions for future research.

Introduction

Several criminologists have explored motivations to work in the criminal justice system (Eren et al., 2019; Eright & Levin, 2018; Gibbs, 2019; Morrow et al., 2020; Todak, 2017). Overall, studies show there are persistent commonalities among individual motivations to work in policing, courts, and corrections (Collica-Cox & Schultz, 2018; Eright & Levin, 2018; Gabbidon et al., 2003; Gibbs, 2019; Raganella & White, 2004). However, some research finds that there are differences in motivational factors based on race and gender identity (Tartaro & Krimmel, 2003; Todak, 2017).

Scholarship that examines motivations of justice employees is a growing area of study as calls to diversify and retain a quality criminal justice workforce persist (Bocar, et al., 2021; US Department of Justice, 2016). Research has yet to explore the potential role that skin tone plays. This gap is surprising as research firmly establishes the relationship between skin tone and a range of justice outcomes, specifically that darker skin tones are correlated with negative outcomes (Barlow & Barlow, 2002; Crutchfield et al., 2017; Monk, 2019). Placed in the context of the strained relationship between minoritized communities and criminal justice actors, considering the role of skin tone adds another layer of complexity to conversations of representation, diversity, and equality across the justice system. In other words, because research finds that darker skinned individuals may perceive the criminal justice system more negatively, it may be that individuals with dark skin tones are also less likely to find working as a justice practitioner desirable. Taken together, this raises the question, how does skin tone impact motivations to work in the justice system?

To address this question, I rely on Deci and Ryan’s psychological framework: self-determination theory (1985) and research on motivations to work in criminal justice system (Barlow & Barlow, 2002; Burch, 2015; Eberhardt, 2006; Yim, 2009) to consider the role skin tone plays in shaping motivations to become justice professionals. Specifically, I draw from 100 semi-structured interviews with diverse undergraduate and graduate students from universities across the United States to explore how one’s skin complexion impacts motivations to work as criminal justice professionals.

Literature review

Process theories seek to explain how motivation develops and changes over time (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vroom, 1964). Process theories consider how internal (e.g., emotions and values) and external (e.g., rewards and punishments) factors impact human motives. Although scholarship addresses the motivations for criminal justice professionals, much of the research is descriptive and/or focused on a single profession (i.e., police officer). First, this section discusses self-determination theory, the framework used in this study to examine motivations across justice professionals. Next, I discuss literature on motivations to work in the criminal justice system and the mixed results on whether demographics (i.e., race and gender) are influential.

Self-determination theory

Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, self-determination theory explains how human motivation is developed (1985). Deci and Ryan (1985) define motivation as something that causes individuals to act. Furthermore, the theory assumes that individuals act to grow in a positive way. The authors identify three core needs that facilitate individual growth: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The theory assumes these needs to be universal and innate, instinctively applying to all people regardless of one’s identity. Autonomy is defined as the feeling of having control over one’s own actions. Competence involves the belief that one can act in an effective way. Lastly, relatedness involves the importance of having relationships and interactions that are meaningful and allow us to feel connected and cared for. Considering these three core needs is critical because the extent to which one feels autonomous, competent, and related directly correlates to the source of human motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Human motivation is intrinsic, or internally driven, when these three core needs are fulfilled. In contrast, motivation existing despite a lack of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, signals extrinsic/external driving factors.

In 2000, Deci & Ryan changed the binary framing of the self-determination theory to a continuum model. This theoretical evolution allowed for nuance to exist between individuals engaging in behavior purely because it is satisfying (intrinsic motivation) and actions done out of compliance to external factors (extrinsic motivation). The self-determination continuum allows for six categories of motivation whose source of motivation ranges from impersonal to internal (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The continuum consists of four distinct forms of extrinsic motivation, regulated by both external and internal factors. The polar ends of the continuum acknowledge the possibility that individuals sometimes act in ways that lack intentionality (amotivation) and at other times act solely from a place of interest, enjoyment, and satisfaction (intrinsic motivation).

Motivations to work in the criminal justice system

There is a growing body of scholarship that examines motivations for individuals who aspire to/work for the criminal justice system (Eren et al., 2019; Eright & Levin, 2018; Gibbs, 2019; Morrow et al., 2020; Todak, 2017). Literature that explores motivations to work in the criminal justice system often does so in silos. Specifically, studies that examine the motives of individuals to work in policing are more common than other professions. This may be because police officers frequently interact with society, creating more opportunities for individuals to gain insight into the profession and potentially aspire to do similar work (Raganella & White, 2004). Studies find that individuals report similar motivations for becoming a police officer regardless of sex or racial/ethnic identity (Raganella & White, 2004); these motivations include the desire to help people, protect people from oppression, job security, the excitement of the job (e.g., catching bad guys), interest in the subject matter, fulfill a life-long goal, and job benefits (Gabbidon et al., 2003; Gibbs, 2019; Raganella & White, 2004; Todak, 2019; Yim, 2009). Going further, public incidents related to policing can also impact individual motivations for aspiring to work in the field (Morrow et al., 2020). Quantitative analysis of 425 college students across 2 universities found that students who believe policing was more dangerous after the incidents of Ferguson were more apprehensive about entering the profession. However, students who perceive the police as procedurally just were less likely to share in those apprehensions (Morrow et al., 2020). Related, Tartaro and Krimmel found 362 students across races held similar motivations for majoring in criminal justice with few exceptions (2003). White students identified their interest in protecting the constitution, wearing a uniform, and arresting criminals more often than their nonwhite counterparts (Tartaro & Krimmel, 2003). Focused on gender differences, a qualitative study exploring the motivations of 42 criminal justice students who desired to become police officers found that women were uniquely motivated to work in policing by the desire to overcome gender-based challenges that plague the profession (Todak, 2017). Overall, scholarship finds individuals report similar motivations to work in policing although several studies note distinctions in motivations exist by race or gender (Tartaro & Krimmel, 2003; Todak, 2017). Some consider these disparities to have minimal implications for policing practices (Raganella & White, 2004).

While many studies find service (i.e., helping others) to be a common motivation for working in policing, what drives individuals to work in corrections is more likely to include financial motivations (Collica-Cox & Schultz, 2018; Schlosser et al., 2010). A mixed methods study of 83 female correctional executives revealed participants were motivated by being able to make difference, good pay, and excellent benefits, with minimal distinctions between Black and white respondents (Collica-Cox & Schulz, 2018). Similarly, financial incentives are also commonly reported as driving motivators for individuals interested in pursuing legal careers (Carrol & Brayfield, 2007). Twenty-nine law students commonly listed obtaining a legal degree as desirable to obtain a high paying, practical, and flexible career (Carrol & Brayfield, 2007). Related, a study examining motivations for state prosecutors analyzed 260 interviews and identified motivations as reinforcing one’s core absolutist identity, gaining trial skills, performing a valuable public service, and sustaining a healthy work-life balance (Eright & Levin, 2018).

Studies that examine professional motivation across the system rely on students majoring only in criminal justice (Gabbidon et al., 2003; Stringer and Murphy, 2020; Walters & Kremser, 2016). Across studies, criminal justice majors reported their motivation for desiring to work in the field stemming from the media, interest in the topic, and helping others (Gabbidon et al, 2003; Stringer & Murphy, 2020; Walters & Kremser, 2016). These studies also explored potential distinctions between demographic subgroups of criminal justice students. Walters and Kremser (2016) found that student class status (i.e., freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior) had no impact on reported motivations to major in criminal justice. Stringer and Murphy used regression models to examine a sample of 91 criminal justice majors, finding their motivations for pursuing careers included availability of jobs, job security, and knowing someone intimately that works in the system. Race was not a statistically significant factor in motivations, although sex was significant. Males were more likely to report job availability being a motivation for their career choice than females (Stringer & Murphy, 2020). A study examining the motivations of criminal justice majors attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) found undergraduates attending a HBCU reported stronger motivations towards their chosen profession based on altruistic reasons, such as fighting oppression and helping people solve problems, compared to their counterparts attending a PWI (Gabbidon et al., 2003).

Studies that rely on criminal justice majors as populations also find that experiencing trauma can be a motivating factor to work in the field (Campion & Esmail, 2016; Eren et al, 2019). Analysis of a mixed methods survey taken by 371 respondents found students who experienced victimization were more likely to perceive the criminal justice system as unjust and aspire to create change in the criminal justice system (Eren et al., 2019). Noteworthy, there was a high correlation between minoritized students and reporting victimization. Similarly, analysis of 12 interview transcripts from 6 students enrolled in criminal justice programs found that each student experienced at least one incident of discrimination in their lifetime and sought to help make a change in the system through their profession (Campion & Esmail, 2016). These two studies signal that trauma can serve as motivation for individuals to work in the justice system.

Contribution

Relying on self-determination theory as a theoretical framework, this study explores student motivations to work in the criminal justice system while considering skin tone as an influential factor. In doing so, this study contributes to two gaps in existing scholarship.

First, the study relies on a single theoretical framework, self-determination theory, to qualitatively examine motivations to work as professionals across the criminal justice system. Previous scholarship typically focuses on one profession (e.g., only policing) and/or lacks a theoretical framework to guide the research. Only two studies, to my knowledge, apply the social determination framework to motivations to work in the criminal justice system. Both apply the framework solely to legal professions, specifically motivations for public defenders remaining on the job (Baćak et al., 2019) and the negative consequences of legal education on law students (Sheldon & Krieger, 2007). Furthermore, by relying on a sample of students that are majoring in fields related to criminal justice and criminology, this study aims to capture a wider array of career interests, rather than solely those reflected by criminal justice majors.

Second, this study is the first to incorporate the role of skin tone on motivations to work in the criminal justice system. Racial and ethnic identity can influence the primary motivating factors individuals report for aspiring to work in the criminal justice system (Collica-Cox & Schulz, 2018; Gabbidon et al., 2003; Tartaro & Krimmel, 2003). In other words, individuals of different racial/ethnic identities provide similar rationales for their career choice – but in different orders or to varying degrees. Skin tone, however, has yet to be considered a factor that can shape motivation to work in the justice system. This is surprising as research clearly acknowledges the influence skin tone has on outcomes related to experiences with the criminal justice system including darker skinned persons being more likely to: be arrested and/or incarcerated (Barlow & Barlow, 2002; Monk, 2019; White, 2015), be killed by the police (Crutchfield et al., 2017), receive longer sentences (Burch, 2015; King & Johnson, 2016), be sentenced to death (Eberhardt, 2006), and be considered less trustworthy (Birdsong et al., 2017) than their lighter skinned counterparts. Race and skin tone are distinctly different concepts that, although coincide, can facilitate different experiences and biases in society including those related to education and employment (Abiola et al., 2017; Banks, 2000; Hunter, 2002; Keith, 1991; Maddow & Gray, 2002; Ryabov, 2013; Viglione et al., 2011). The impact of skin tone related to justice outcomes is also relevant to white persons; one study finding that the likelihood of arrest for white males continuously decreases with lighter skin (Branigan, 2017). Based on scholarship that supports race as an influential factor in shaping justice professional aspirations and skin tone as critical in determining justice related outcomes, this study explores the relationship between skin tone and motivations to work in the criminal justice system. Skin tone, in short, may shape motivations because darker skinned individuals may find working for the criminal justice system undesirable because it is more like to treat people of their complexion harshly.

Additionally, this study considers trauma as a motivating factor to work in the criminal justice system in both the theoretical and empirical portions of research. This decision was guided by the established correlation between marginalized communities, traumatic experiences with the criminal justice system, and the study’s particular interest in the role of skin tone. Considering the scholarship summarized above, this study addresses the following research questions:

  1. How does the self-determination continuum align with motivations to work in the justice system?

  2. How does skin tone relate to motivations to work in the justice system?

  3. How does trauma relate to motivations to work in the justice system?

Data and methodology

Data for this study were part of a larger project entitled, Shades of Justice, focused on the skin tone, race, and student perceptions of justice. The original data collection effort occurred in two phases, quantitative and qualitative, that began in the spring 2020 and lasted over seven months. The quantitative phase consisted of an electronic survey distributed across the United States to graduate and undergraduate students majoring in fields related to criminology and criminal justice. This sample is appropriate for the study because students select their majors to obtain the knowledge and skills required to obtain a job in a related field. Therefore, although these students have yet to work as criminal justice professionals, by declaring a related major, exploring their motivations can contribute to our knowledge about why people choose to work in the field.

The phase 1 survey instrument captured perceptions of skin tone, occupational aspirations, and the criminal justice system broadly. Skin tone was captured in two distinct ways. First, respondents were asked if they considered themselves light, medium, or dark skinned. Second, skin tone was also measured using an image depicting 25 shades of makeup tones. This approach to measurement allows a more precise and objective answer by using a visual guide. Respondents were required to select one shade that closest aligned with their skin tone. For clarity, this study uses “skin tone” to refer to the variable that relies on three broad categories (light/medium/dark). The phrase “skin shade” indicates the respondents’ selection from the visual image depicting 25 skin tones. Scholarship finds that it is important to measure skin tone in multiple ways – perceived skin color versus measured skin color – as the distinctions between those groups shape outcomes in distinct ways (Wright et al., 2015).

The quantitative phase fueled the qualitative phase, consisting of 100 interviews. The interview sample was randomly selected from a list of respondents who opted into the qualitative phase in the electronic survey. Beginning in summer 2020, 12 graduate and undergraduate students of diverse skin tones and backgrounds conducted virtual semi-structured interviews via Zoom. The research team was trained by the Principal Investigator (the author of this paper) on race, skin tone, justice, reflexivity, notetaking, probing, addressing sensitive issues, and research ethics in qualitative data collection among other topics. The research team adhered to the same set of semi-structured interview questions and were free to probe on concepts at their discretion. Of particular interest to this study, the interview guide asked: “Tell me about how you made the choice to major in [CONCENTRATION HERE].” And “How has your skin tone impacted your choices academically or professionally?” The research team had biweekly check ins with the Principal Investigator to discuss emerging codes, challenging interactions, share strategies for data collection, and recount successful exchanges. Considering the large size of the research team, the diverse sample, and the sensitive nature of the data set, the Principal Investigator also reviewed Zoom recordings of 2 interviews conducted by each member of the team during data collection and met with team members one-on-one to provide constructive feedback and ensure general uniformity in how the interviews were conducted.

Interviewers were matched to interviewees based on skin tone, race, and/or sex, whenever possible. This matching strategy was enacted to increase the level of comfort and build rapport between the interviewer and respondent based on skin tone, the study’s primary focus. Prior to conducting the interview, interviewers contacted their assigned respondents via the email address provided in the Phase 1 survey. Through email exchange, members of the research team scheduled interviews, explained and collected signed consent forms, and answered questions raised by the respondent. In addition to written consent, verbal consent from each respondent was requested at the beginning of each interview. Interviews lasted between 45-95 minutes and were recorded and transcribed via Zoom. Transcriptions were reviewed by members of the research team for accuracy. Additionally, transcript review included inserting reactions overlooked by the software program including sighs, laughter, and nonverbal gestures such as hand motions. Pseudonyms, selected by the participants were used throughout the interviews and during analysis. This study refers to participants by a second set of pseudonyms (assigned by the Principal Investigator/author) to further ensure anonymity.

Analytic strategy

Analysis was conducted using the qualitative software NVivo 12 beginning in fall 2020. One hundred transcripts were entered into NVivo as well as classifications that consisted of respondent demographics (i.e., race, ethnicity, skin tone, skin shade, sex, and major) pulled from the phase 1 survey. The research team engaged in a phronetic iterative analytical approach which allows both emergent and existing themes, frameworks, and relationships to be revealed during data analysis through repeatedly reviewing and comparing codes (Tracy, 2019). Therefore, this approach acknowledges guiding frameworks from pre-existing literature while also allowing new ideas to emerge. Tracy’s approach was appropriate for the purposes of this study considering self-determination theory is a preexisting theoretical framework and the consideration of skin tone in the exploration of student motivations to work in the criminal justice system calls for a more exploratory lens.

A total of 6 members of the research team, including the Principal Investigator, analyzed the data using this cyclical coding strategy. Cyclical coding involves primary (descriptive, first-level) and secondary coding (critical examination of codes identified in primary phase that involves organization and synthesis using interpretation) (Tracy, 2019). Additionally, negative case analysis (or intentionally seeking codes and patterns that contradict ones previously found) was conducted to reinforce validity. This step was critical to prevent prioritizing thematic findings that were a result of bias or preference. The analysis team also developed analytic and reflexive memos as they became immersed in the data which allows for transparency between coders in terms of thought patterns and idea formation. The team met on a consistent basis to discuss emerging codes which enforced intercoder reliability or the process where independent coders evaluate data and reach similar conclusions (Tinsley & Weiss, 2000). The Principal Investigator considered information from individual coders, team meetings, codes, memos, and existing scholarship to form the findings reported in this paper.

Reflexivity in qualitative work is critical because it provides transparency, context, and insight into the research process involving the consideration of how one’s past experiences and perceptions impact the research process (Tracy, 2019). I am a Criminologist who identifies as a Black woman of medium skin complexion. Additionally, I am a former deputy corrections officer. This research is grounded in existing scholarship and follows rigorous methods (mentioned above) to combat any potential biases that may result from my identity and experiences.

The purpose of this study is to explore the role of skin tone and trauma in student motivations to work as criminal justice practitioners using self-determination theory as a guiding theoretical framework. The findings section first presents the demographic breakdown of the sample, including reported skin tone and skin shade. These descriptive statistics are followed by thematic findings organized according to the motivation categories identified on the self-determination continuum.

Findings

Descriptive findings

Data for this study are from 100 undergraduate and graduate students majoring in the following fields: Criminal Justice (37), Criminology (21), Law (17), Terrorism/Homeland Security (7), Legal Studies (6), Sociology (4) and other related areas (8). Most of the sample identified as female (67), with the remaining sample identifying as male (31) and another sex category (2). Note, because sample size is 100, the numbers in parentheses are also percentages.

In terms of racial diversity, the interviewees identified as Black (45), White (38), Asian (9); American Indian or Alaskan Native (2), Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (1). The remaining 17 respondents identified as a race not listed. Noteworthy, respondents could select multiple options and may be in multiple race categories. Interestingly, although there is missing data for racial categories, all respondents answered the questions related to skin tone. Forty-nine of the respondents identified as medium complexion, followed by those with a light (36) and a dark complexation (15). Skin shade varied across 25 categories ranging from vanilla to expresso. To compare skin tone responses more directly to skin shade responses, the 25 shade categories were split into 3 groups—light, medium, and dark—with 9 shades being considered medium. Interviewee responses for skin shade were notably different than that of skin tone. Specifically, respondents identified their skin shade as light (24), medium (38), dark (38), with 4 respondents giving no response. The differences between answers for skin tone and skin shade demonstrate that when participants place themselves in broad categories (light, medium, and dark) most consider themselves to be medium complexion. However, the measurement of skin shade based on a visual image depicts a more equal distribution of complexion across the sample.

Thematic findings

This study explores student motivations to work in the criminal justice system using self-determination theory as a guiding framework. The findings below consider the motivations identified by the self-determination continuum as themes. Noteworthy, the self-determination continuum also includes amotivation, or the lack of desire or interest in engaging in an activity. However, because the sample only includes graduate and undergraduate students who are majoring in fields related to criminology and criminal justice and – furthermore – opted in to be interviewed for a study focused on reasons why they chose their career, this category is outside the scope of this study. The tables presented in each thematic section provide details on respondents with corresponding motivations for wanting to become criminal justice professionals. The tables note the raw participant number and word percentage for each category. Word percentage is the proportion of words coded at each theme by category. Furthermore, quotes from individual participants are identified by a second pseudonym, their skin tone, and skin shade. For more information on the visual guide used in the phase 1 survey, contact the author.

Career progression: External regulation


Table 1. External regulation sample

Race

Number of Respondents

Word %

Skin Tone

Number of Respondents

Word %

Sex

Number of Respondents

Word %

White

12

49%

Dark

-

-

Male

3

8%

Black

5

18%

Medium

11

59%

Female

18

92%

Asian

-

-

Light

10

41%

AI/AN

1

1%

Mixed

3

11%

Other

3

11%

N=21


Motives that were externally regulated were identified in the data as those tied to the introduction and advancement of current/future careers. These extrinsic impetuses provide rewards and punishment outside of oneself such as landing a job or gaining a promotion. These also require a level of control and obedience to external entities to be successful. Twenty-one (21) respondents discussed their motivations being regulated by external factors, the majority being female (18), white (12) and identifying their skin complexion as medium (11), respectively. Noteworthy, no dark-skinned respondents consider their motivations to work in the criminal justice system as driven by external factors. Table 1 provides more details on respondents whose motivations aligned with this theme.

So, I made the choice to major in criminal justice, just because I knew that, in future, I either wanted to work in law enforcement or maybe be a future FBI agent or be a lawyer one day. So, I thought that was the easiest, best choice to do … just … and I always wanted to become a police officer. So, when it was come [time] to choose a major. It was a no brainer that I wanted to be criminal justice.

Alice: Light skin tone; Honeybeige3 skin shade; Female

Here Alice considers the decision to major in criminal justice an obvious choice to achieve her desired goal of working in law enforcement. She repeatedly emphasizes that this decision was easy to make, “a no brainer”, considering her long-time dream of becoming a police officer. Alice’s confidence in her decision is connected to her future professional choices, an external regulator. Already a justice practitioner, Jonah states:

I ended up getting a job working for the Department of Defense and I'm sort of still there. So, this is just, you know, the next step in my career progression.

Jonah: Medium skin tone; Chestnut3 skin shade; Male

Like Alice, Jonah confidently considers his decision major in Criminology the logical “next step” to advance in his career. In fact, Jonah’s use of the word “just” emphasizes the effectiveness of career advancement as an extrinsic motivating factor. Although already working in the field, Jonah continues to find external rewards (progressing in his job) a sufficient stimulus to act (pursue education).

Mentors: Introjected regulation


Table 2. Introjected regulation sample

Race

Number of Respondents

Word %

Skin Tone

Number of Respondents

Word %

Sex

Number of Respondents

Word %

White

10

35%

Dark

3

11%

Male

5

23%

Black

10

30%

Medium

13

50%

Female

22

77%

Asian

6

18%

Light

11

39%

AI/AN

-

-

Mixed

5

16%

Other

1

1%

N=27


Introjected regulation is motivation that is somewhat external to individuals. Participant motivations that were tied to encouragement, admiration, imitation, and investment from mentors were considered introjected regulation as the focus was on approval from external sources. In the sample, mentors were consistently mentioned as sources of approval that – although external – impacted their internal motivations (e.g., causing feelings of pride, shame, and/or guilt). Twenty-seven (27) respondents discussed motivations that were regulated somewhat externally; Table 2 provides a demographic breakdown of this theme. Noteworthy, only three respondents (11% of the sample) who identified as dark-skinned discussed motivations that qualify as introjected regulation. Below, Judy describes how her mother serves as a mentor and contributes to her motivation to work as a criminal justice practitioner.

I decided that the best route would be to go for political clients. Not only because I thought it will prepare me for law school, but (um) I also will be a little bit interested in politics and then with some guidance from my mom, too. She kind of helped me navigate my way and then finally settle on (um) that major. I think the main way that she really got me into or inspired me was just telling me about her experiences ... So, hearing back from her made me want to do my own research and look into politics and look into all the different fields of law and like what you can do with a law degree. I think that's what really inspired me and drew me to not only political science, but also law and made me think that maybe I do want to go to law school.

Judy: Dark skin tone; Java5 skin shade; Female

While many individuals consider their mothers as figures of inspiration, Judy frames her mother as a mentor that provided guidance and strategy as she began her own career path. Although mentors are external, they can shape the internal realities of mentees, as Judy’s mother clearly impacted her.

It started in high school [in] the criminal justice class … and I bonded really well with the teacher. When I got selected I was like, if you know like he thinks I have the potential and then ... I really got into it. And then my first semester, my professor (a Chief of Police) is really interesting to us.

Natalie: Medium skin tone; Chestnut3 skin shade; Female

Here, the relationship Natalie experienced with a high school teacher peaked her interested in criminal justice. Natalie credits the faith that this teacher had in her potential as the beginning of her confidence in herself to do well in the field. This diffusion of belief in her potential led her to continue her education in the discipline. Interestingly, she continues to demonstrate interest in educators who can serve as mentors, sources of approval, and provide a form of somewhat external motivation.

Make an impact: Identified regulation


Table 3. Identified regulation sample

Race

Number of Respondents

Word %

Skin Tone

Number of Respondents

Word %

Sex

Number of Respondents

Word %

White

21

38%

Dark

4

9%

Male

18

34%

Black

21

38%

Medium

23

40%

Female

34

66%

Asian

7

13%

Light

25

51%

AI/AN

7

13%

Mixed

3

7%

Other

3

4%

N=52


Identified regulation is motivation that is intrinsically driven but outcomes are tied to external results. Student motivations that were tied to the desire to make an impact on the nature, processes, and/or outcomes of the criminal justice system were considered to fall under this theme. Over half the sample (52) discussed identified regulated motivations in their interviews. In terms of skin tone, participants that aligned with this theme identified as having light (25), medium (23),and dark (4) complexions. Further details about the sample are in Table 3. Overton discusses his desire to make his mark on the field as a justice practitioner.

I know I wanted to do something that would have an impact (um) substantially like in this criminal justice field … that affects people in their day to day lives. (um) And basically, within the scope of that, (um) being a lawyer and going to law school was kind of, I think, what fit most with what I was looking for. (um) And so it was kind of just a natural choice.

Overton: Medium skin tone; Mocha4 skin shade; Male

Overton’s “natural choice” to become a lawyer is driven by his desire to influence the field and alter the way people experience the justice system overall. His internal ambitions are inextricably linked to making a lasting outcome on external parties – in this case the system and individuals in society. Addison shares in this desire to make an impact.

I've just always been interested in terrorism and why it happens even from when I was a young child because one of my first memories is 911 … And I didn't exactly know how my skill set would fit into studying that ... And then I realized that probably a Ph.D. program using my academic skill set and my research tools, that would probably be the best way that I could learn more about this and try to make an impact (um) that way.

Addison: Light skin tone; Warmbeige2 skin shade; Female

Addison links the events of September 11th, 2001, to her intrinsic desire to work as a justice practitioner, specifically in the field of terrorism studies. Although the initial spark was an external event, she notes that her reasoning for pursing a doctorate degree is tied to making an impact. In other words, her actions of acquiring appropriate tools and skills are all driven by a singular external outcome: influencing the broader system.

Trauma: Integrated regulation


Table 4. Integrated regulation sample

Race

Number of Respondents

Word %

Skin Tone

Number of Respondents

Word %

Sex

Number of Respondents

Word %

White

3

25%

Dark

1

34%

Male

1

10%

Black

5

17%

Medium

9

46%

Female

11

90%

Asian

1

4%

Light

2

20%

AI/AN

-

-

Mixed

1

8%

Other

-

-

N=12


Integrated regulation on the self-determination continuum represents extrinsic motivations integrated into one’s concept of self. In the sample, student motivations that related to trauma were directly linked to their sense of self or internal values. The traumas discussed were either directly or indirectly experienced by participants. Table 4 provides details of the 12 respondents who discussed motivations related to trauma. Although the skin complexion of most respondents was medium (9), the distribution of words used to discuss trauma as motivation was relatively even: dark (34%), medium (46%), and light (20%). Jamika, a female of dark complexion shared how the murder of her brother motivates her career aspirations.

Long story short, my brother end up getting incarcerated for three years and then (um) a year after his incarceration. He got stabbed and killed. I was 16 at the time. (Um) And obviously changed my life trajectory and impacted what I chose to study.

Jamika Direct Trauma; Dark skin tone; Mocha4 skin shade; Female

Jamika experienced direct trauma by losing her brother to violent crime. Her life trajectory turned towards studying and working in the criminal justice system after this traumatic incident. She notes the impact that the death of her brother had on her life permanently. Lydia discusses her experiences with indirect trauma.

And I started wanting to learn the perspectives. I did see a lot of people in my community get arrested as well and most of them … they get high bonds. And I just wanted to start to understand why they make bonds … and try to get to understand that perspective

Lydia: Indirect Trauma; Medium skin tone; Honeybeige3 skin shade; Female

Lydia’s statement reveals individuals in her hometown often faced contact with the criminal justice system that resulted in harsh punishments, specifically high bonds. The secondary trauma of witnessing unjust treatment conflicted with Lydia’s sense of personal values and motivated her to take on a cause: understanding and working towards reform. In short, this indirect exposure to trauma motivated Lydia to expand her knowledge of the criminal justice system, an example of identified regulation.

Interest: Intrinsic regulation


Table 5. Intrinsic regulation sample

Race

Number of Respondents

Word %

Skin Tone

Number of Respondents

Word %

Sex

Number of Respondents

Word %

White

34

72%

Dark

4

8%

Male

10

26%

Black

11

16%

Medium

16

19%

Female

41

74%

Asian

4

6%

Light

31

73%

AI/AN

1

1%

Mixed

4

5%

Other

1

1%

N=51


Motivations regulated intrinsically are those actions people engage in to fulfill their pleasure, fun, and satisfaction. Student motivations that fit into this category tied to individual interest; these range to include curiosity, attentiveness, awareness, and enjoyment. Fifty-one participants, mostly light-skinned (31), female (41), and white (34), respectively, mentioned intrinsic motivations. Table 5 details demographics about this subgroup of the sample.

I feel like I've always been (um) really interested in like, social justice issues, like immigration and like mass incarceration, and like a really big focus on like access to quality education. And I don't know how I initially got like interested in it.

Mia: Medium skin tone; Chestnut4 skin shade; Female

In her statement, Mia discusses her desire to pursue criminal justice being rooted in pure interest. In fact, the interest is so intrinsic that Mia cannot precisely locate the delta of her curiosity. Tricia shares an internal motivation for pursing her interest in criminology and criminal justice, although she identifies what peaked her attention.

I love researching, this sounds awful, but I love researching unsolved cases and so (um) I have been, you know, trying to read about and watch, watch shows and movies and everything of stories about criminology and criminal justice, and for as long as I can remember ... I think that the putting the clues together. And, you know, using all the resources we have, I find that really interesting, and I'd love to be a part of it.

Tricia: Light skin tone; Bisque skin shade; Female

Tricia’s interest in pursuing work in the criminal justice system is sustained through research, television shows, movies, and other activities that feed her love of clues and detective work. While these topics are ones Tricia loves and that spark her curiosity, she simultaneously frames her response as sounding “awful”. The contrast between Tricia acknowledging some may perceive her interest as off putting and her persistent long-time interest in these topics further reinforce that her aspiration is intrinsically regulated. She is unaffected by the negative stigma others may place on her behavior.

Discussion

This study examined student motivations for pursuing careers as criminal justice practitioners by relying on the self-determination theoretical framework as a guide. Findings reveal aspiring justice workers have a range of motivations for their interest in the field. And that these motivations are experienced differently based on skin tone. This section reviews the findings in relation to the research questions, acknowledges the limitations of the work, and discusses practical implications.

Addressing the first research question, the findings of the qualitative analysis demonstrate that student motivations to become criminal justice practitioners align with the self-determination continuum. Although the number of participants whose motivations aligned with each category ranged from 12 (trauma) to 52 (make an impact), each reflected a distinct rationale for interest in the field. The number of participants in each category is not a reflection that one motivational category has more validity or credibility than the other. Instead, researchers should consider how the openness of the participant to share sensitive information (i.e., traumatic experiences) versus the more “socially acceptable” desire to impact the criminal justice system may impact the data. Considering this study was the first to apply self-determination theory to motivation for employment across the system, researchers are encouraged to apply a single framework, including self-determination theory, in future work. Future research should also explore the implications of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations among individuals interested in working as justice professionals. Law students who reported aspiring to work in the justice system for intrinsic reasons were also most likely to receive high grades, and in turn, shift away from service orientated careers to those that were more lucrative (Sheldon & Krieger, 2004). Therefore, individuals who are motivated purely by internal factors may be attracted to certain types of criminal justice professions.

Students of different skin complexions do not report equal motivation by each category, signaling that skin tone can shape rationale for engaging in justice work, addressing the second research question. This aligns with previous literature that suggests due to discriminatory treatment darker skinned people have poorer perceptions of the system which may translate to them finding criminal justice employment less attractive. Relating to Deci and Ryan’s framework, no respondents who identified as dark-skinned were motivated by career progression (externally regulated). This symbolizes that attractiveness to work in the justice field may need to have an internal component for some. This apparent requirement for an intrinsic tie among darker skinned individuals makes sense considering they are likely to have more negative interactions with the justice system than their lighter counterparts (Barlow & Barlow, 2002; Burch, 2015; Crutchfield et al., 2017; Eberhardt, 2006; King & Johnson, 2016; Monk, 2019; White, 2015). Additionally, few dark-skinned respondents were motivated by mentors (somewhat external regulation) or the idea that they can make an impact on the system by becoming a justice professional. Scholarship recognizes the importance of mentors on individuals in early stages of their criminal justice careers (Kay et al., 2009). Considering the lack of diversity among justice professionals, there is a deficit in mentors with darker complexions. Although mentors do not have to be demographic matches to mentees to be effective (Morales et al., 2021), some literature supports the idea that having a role model who shares commonality in terms of race or gender can be impactful on mentee choices (Kofoed & mcGovney, 2019).

Trauma (internal regulation) was reported as a motivating factor across skin tones. This finding also addresses the third research question which examines the relationship between trauma and student motivations for their intended criminal justice career choice. As the reach of the criminal justice system and the collateral consequences of mass incarceration continues to expand, a growing amount of the population are exposed to crime and crime responses. Future researchers should further explore the role of trauma as motivation to work in the system, particularly differences between those who have direct and indirect exposure to traumatic incidents. Light skinned respondents most often reported interest (internal regulation) as a motivating factor to work in the justice system. This finding suggests that the privilege of engaging in criminal justice work primarily for self-fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy is disproportionately experienced by lighter skinned people. Future research should continue to explore the relationship between intrinsic motivations to work as a justice professional, including instances of commendation and discipline.

This study is not without limitations. First, these data were collected virtually during the summer of 2020 from students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs in the United States. During that period, the nation experienced two major pandemics: the Covid19 virus and the racial protests fueled by the murders of Black people by police. Virtual data collection was a requirement of the study as the sample spanned across the United States and in-person contact between strangers (the interviewer and interviewee) was neither practical nor safe. Benefits of virtual interviewing included being flexible with scheduling, allowing a large data team to conduct interviews simultaneously, and capturing gestures and tone via Zoom recording. However, disadvantages included being able to build rapport face-to-face with participants as they shared personal and/or sensitive information. Additionally, prior literature demonstrates social events, can impact the aspirations and motivations of individuals considering becoming justice professionals (Morrow et al., 2020). In fact, participants mentioned the killings of Black and Brown people including George Floyd, Treyvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Sandra Bland as having an impact on their perceptions of justice and the system in the United States. Although data collection coincided with this period of unrest, the global impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement—including intense media coverage—allows the study to assume participants were all exposed to these events, rather than a select subsample. Future research from these data will focus on the Black Lives Matter Movement. An additional limitation is that this study does not take an intersectional approach to understand how skin tone, race, and gender work together to shape motivations to work in the justice system. The absence of these intersections are due to the multiple categories of motivations put forth by Deci and Ryan, paper length concerns, and considerations of the study’s scope. This work is the first step in understanding the role of skin tone on criminal justice practitioner motivations; future studies should dig deeper into the potential impact of intersectionality.

Policy implications

Findings from this study suggest three major translational implications: (1) Skin Tone Diversity Matters among Justice Professionals; (2) Systemic Evaluation of Professional Motivation is Required; and (3) Amotivation is critical.

First, results demonstrate individuals across skin tones are differently motivated to work as justice professionals. Although some studies find that there is homogeneity in motivations overall (Gabbidon et al., 2003; Gibbs, 2019; Raganella & White, 2004; Todak, 2019; Yim, 2009), others find significant distinctions between members of different sex and racial groups (Tartaro & Krimmel, 2003; Todak, 2017). This study is the first to include skin tone as a potential factor in shaping motivations and finds it to be influential. Practically, criminal justice institutions should consider skin tone as a part of their efforts to increase diversity, inclusion, and feelings of belongingness. Although, integrating skin tone as another factor in diversity initiatives may sound overwhelming, dismissing the impact of colorism—“the allocation of privilege and disadvantage based on skin color” (Smart, 2018, p. 72)—is not an option considering the empirical evidence demonstrating the import of skin tone within and outside the system. Therefore, human resource departments, administrators, educators, and supervisors across the criminal justice system should begin investing in efforts to understand the role of skin tone in outcomes related to their respective institutions. Scholars and practitioners should incorporate the existence and impact of heterogeneity in experiences, perceptions, and realities of diverse justice professionals as a critical component of their work. In alignment with scholars of Black Criminology, researchers should integrate the unique experiences of Blackness and skin tone—a related and critical component of the Black experience—on justice related outcomes (Penn, 2003; Russell, 1992; Unnever et al., 2018). Particularly, if respondents who are darker skinned are less likely to be motivated by career progression and intrinsic factors such as self-fulfillment, justice institutions must provide specific types of motivation that will successfully reach these minoritized populations.

Secondly, these results encourage researchers to intentionally undertake studies that examine professional motivations across the system. The successful application of the self-determination continuum reflects the commonalities among those interested in working for justice. Future research can also dive into the distinctions across those interested in working in policing, courts, corrections, and other justice-related fields such as social work. Reforming the system is a comprehensive effort and must include the perceptions and employee buy-in—in police (Rosenbaum & McCarty, 2017), corrections, (Lerman & Harney, 2019) and courts (Richardson & Kutateladze, 2021). Therefore, understanding and comparing the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of all justice workers is critical to successful outcomes and changes system wide.

Lastly, although the focus on this study is on motivations, the results suggest that motivations vary across people which suggests the importance of considering amotivation. Amotivation can stem from a lack of the three core needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 1985). For example, individuals are amotivated when they are uninterested in a goal or feel they would be ineffective in achieving a goal. Amotivation was outside the scope of this study. However, findings demonstrating the nuance and complexity of motivations for diverse justice professionals highlight the importance of future attention being placed on what causes amotivation. This is particularly important for criminal justice professionals like correctional officers where attrition rates are high (Lommel, 2004).

Conclusion

In sum, results from this study demonstrate the role of diversity in motivations of future justice professionals. Relying on the self-determination continuum as a guiding framework, findings reveal differences in motivations by skin tone. Respondents who identify as dark-skinned do not report motivations driven by rewards and consequences, such as career progression. Additionally, lighter-skinned respondents are more likely to aspire to work in the justice system out of pure interest, self-fulfillment and/or enjoyment. The implications of this work suggest that scholars and practitioners should continue to invest in research and practice that prioritizes diversity in all its forms, including skin tone. In all, to reflect the increasingly diverse population the justice system serves in its employees, we must consider the varying shades of motivation.

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Contributor

TaLisa J. Carter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University in Washington, D.C., a nonresident Fellow of the Brookings Institute, and an Affiliated Scholar at Urban Institute. Ongoing research examines theoretical explanations of accountability in the Criminal Justice System, the role of identity in criminal justice professions, and the impact of colorism on criminal justice outcomes. Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, her work is published in Deviant Behavior, Race and Justice, and Sociological Forum.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to acknowledge the Shades of Justice research team for their efforts on this project. Thank you for staying toasty! Additionally, many thanks to each participant for contributing their voices to the work.

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