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A Diversity Course for Criminal Justice Undergraduate Students: A Preliminary Evaluation

Published onApr 01, 2018
A Diversity Course for Criminal Justice Undergraduate Students: A Preliminary Evaluation


Racially-involved police community incidents demonstrate the urgent need for educating future criminal professionals to work in a multicultural environment. We present a qualitative evaluation of a criminal justice diversity course designed to broaden university students' multicultural attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Results indicated that most students reportedly experienced a decrease in biases, described the importance of learning about cultural differences, acknowledged minorities’ negative attitudes toward the criminal justice system, and reported intentions to serve as fair and open-minded criminal justice professionals. Students also showed a significant increase in empathy across the semester.


A pedagogical strategy which provides students with opportunities to learn about their own culture and the cultures of others is particularly relevant to the discipline of criminal justice (Calathes, 1994) in view of the fact that over half of all U.S. jail inmates (Minton, 2011) and state and federal prisoners (West, Sabol, & Greenman, 2010) are either black or Hispanic and disproportionately economically disadvantaged (Reiman & Leighton, 2009). In this paper, we describe an undergraduate criminal justice course on multicultural diversity. The purpose of this diversity course is to provide students with the opportunity to develop cultural relativism, defined by the notion that behaviors should be evaluated according to the norms of an individual’s unique culture rather than the standards of others. This multicultural awareness engenders the knowledge and skills that assist in overcoming the sociocultural differences characteristic of criminal justice professionals and the communities they serve. Diversity courses are commonly offered in criminal justice undergraduate programs, yet there is a paucity of research on the impact of criminal justice diversity courses on students’ attitudes and behaviors. Information on how well students are equipped for negotiating a multicultural workplace is unavailable, despite the necessity of students having a range of multicultural competencies to be prepared for criminal justice careers. In a survey of 126 faculty members who teach courses on social justice (including criminal justice), the most common response by instructors was that they did not evaluate the impact of their teaching on student outcomes (Holsinger, 2012).

Historically, the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice have been grounded in the experiences of a Western Eurocentric tradition, as evidenced by textbooks that focus predominantly on white culture. Barak (1991) argues that a culturally white and male bias focus on pedagogy has prevented students from learning the historical and social context of minority groups (e.g., African-Americans, women) necessary for understanding patterns of offending and marginalized minorities (p. 174). However, there has been some headway, within the field of criminal justice regarding the teaching of cultural diversity. In a study of 321 criminal justice or related bachelor’s degree programs, Pattern and Way (2011) found that 67% offered one or more diversity courses. Yet, only 14% of university criminal justice programs nationwide mandate that students take a diversity class. Only two criminal justice textbooks (Hendricks, Bryers & Warren-Gordon, 2011; McNamara & Burns, 2009) and two empirical studies (Cameron, 2002; Holsinger, 2012) with a focus on multiculturalism pedagogy have been published; however, programs continue to emphasize the administration of justice, theories, and research methods rather than incorporating diversity within their curricula (Frederick, 2012).

Literature review

Empirical review of diversity courses for undergraduate students

We uncovered two articles (Cameron, 2002; Holsinger, 2012) that tested the impact of criminal justice diversity courses on undergraduate student outcomes. In both studies, the researchers aimed to 1) provide the students with an understanding of the application of critical or feminist theory (even if the researcher does not use that term) and diversity, as well as 2) to develop knowledge in the classroom through the sharing of students’ personal experiences. Both courses reportedly contributed to the students’ understanding of inequities within society. Through Associative Group Analysis (APA), Cameron (2002) reported that the use of critical theory pedagogy contributed to students’ perceptions of justice that became well-developed over time. Using qualitative analysis, Holsinger (2012) reported that the students’ own experiences of injustice motivated their interest in studying criminal justice and future work toward confronting injustice.

Given the paucity of published diversity studies in the field of criminal justice, we examined additional studies outside the discipline of criminal justice. For example, the impact of diversity classes in education and psychology points to improvements in students’ multicultural competencies (e.g., Brown, 2004; Kernahan & Davis, 2009; Martin & Dagostino-Kalniz, 2015; Mayhew & Fernandez, 2007; Simons et al., 2011; Simons et al., 2012). Hence, our course sought to address the lack of undergraduate criminal justice diversity courses.

Police-community relations

The need for diversity education becomes evident when examining police-community conflict between the communities served by the criminal justice system and professionals. Cultural insensitivity by the police has significantly contributed to the stress between the police and community (Gould, 1997, p.1). A consistent complaint by minority community leaders is that officers are not adequately sensitive to cultural differences (Smith & Holmes, 2003). Historically in the U.S., relations between police and minority residents have been plagued by varying degrees of conflict (Gould, 1997; McNamara & Burns, 2009). In the 1960s, urban protests against racial discrimination peaked. Police officers responded to protesters with physical brutality exacerbating tension in minorities-police relations (Walker & Starmer, 1999). Recent history such as the acquittal of the white officers accused of beating Rodney King, an African American in Los Angeles, led to race riots across the country. In the 1990s, police force abuse against African Americans (e.g. Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo in New York City) further increased tension between the police and minorities. In 2000, about 36% of blacks compared to 69% of whites reported that police treat individuals of all races fairly. Almost three times as many blacks as whites (36% vs. 14%) reported that the police would stop and arrest them when they are completely innocent (The United States Department of Justice, 2000: Table 2.30, 2.31).

Cultural competency in the criminal justice system is relevant to concerns related to policing and other criminal justice professionals. Smith and Holmes (2003) summarized evidence documenting police mistreatment or unfair treatment of minorities. For example, minorities, were disproportionately the targets of police brutality (Smith & Holmes, 2003), and prosecutors perpetuated racial disparities at the charging and plea-bargaining phases (Davis, 2007). Black youth were more likely than white youth to be waived to adult court, irrespective of the type of crime and age of youth (Bishop, 2000), and were given more punitive dispositions than white youth despite identical offenses and prior records (Mitchell, 2005). Sentencing laws for the possession of crack cocaine—more common among minorities—have been much harsher than laws for the possession of powder cocaine—more common among whites—despite the absence of pharmacological differences between the two forms of cocaine (Beckett, Nyrop, Pfingst, & Bowen, 2005). Unfair processing contributes to aggressive law enforcement and punishment, which in turn results in high rates of imprisonment of minorities (Clear, 2007). Thus, it is not surprising that minority residents reportedly distrust the police (Gould, 1997) and hesitate to call when in need (Anderson, 2000; Walker, 1999).

Demographic differences between the police and communities they service

Police community mistrust is magnified when the racial composition of the department is not reflective of the local population (Maciag, 2015). Among hundreds of police departments assessed nationally, the percentage of white police officers continues to be more than 30% higher than in the communities they serve (Ashken & Park, 2015). After the Michael Brown shooting, the percentage of white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri was 55 percent higher than the resident population (Ashken & Park, 2015). This disparity in racial composition contributed to strained relations between impoverished minorities and white officers in control. These demographic differences point to the importance of implementing and evaluating a diversity course for future criminal justice professionals.

Cultural diversity training within the criminal justice system

Current events point to the need for enhanced training for police officers in the areas of community relations and diversity. Offering training at the university level for undergraduate students studying criminal justice provides one way to address this unmet need. Cultural diversity training offered through police academies has been identified as necessary for effective policing (Brown & Hendricks, 1995). Law enforcement leadership recognizes that officers must become culturally competent to effectively work with the diverse communities they serve (Blakemore, Barlow, & Padgett, 1995; Lumb, 1995). However, diversity training within law enforcement has not kept pace with best practice diversity pedagogy as described by Holsinger (2012). The traditional model dominates academy training, which focuses on the mechanics of policing such as the law, regulation, and defense (Birzer, 1999). These topics are not integrated with teachings on interpersonal relations and conflict resolution, the skills that ultimately shape the outcome of police-resident interactions. Program curricula provide factual information or “canned programs” about certain cultures (Blakemore et al., 1995, p. 71), which sends the message that bias only results from misinformation or lack of information (Andersen & Collins, 1992). Providing information alone does not translate into developing multicultural competency, but instead, it is necessary to involve officers in an interactive learning process (Blakemore, et al., 1995, p. 74). Academy instructors have also used an “us-versus-them” (law enforcement vs. community) approach, which is damaging to any cultural diversity program (Gould, 1997) that aims to improve police-community relations. Also, academies rely on one-time training sessions that lack the evolutionary complexity necessary for transforming the attitudes and behaviors of the participants (Barlow & Barlow, 1994).

Consistent with best practice diversity pedagogy (Holsinger, 2012), police experts advocate for training that is student-centered with the instructor acting as a facilitator rather than a lecturer to empower recruits to self-explore and create an atmosphere conducive to open dialogue (Gould, 1997). Engaging participants in discussions about their own identities is necessary to help them develop their own cultural awareness and an appreciation of the impact of their culture on interactions with others (Barlow & Barlow, 1994; Nkomo, 1992). Effective diversity training is on-going and includes opportunities for officers to spend time with individuals from different cultures in situations that do not require the power dynamics of being a police officer; such interactions facilitate a reduction of fear and bias for all participants (Barlow & Barlow, 1994). Gould (1997) evaluated a diversity course at an Ohio academy and found that new recruits and experienced officers agreed that effective diversity courses should be offered early in an officer's career and continually reinforced over time.

Summary of introduction

Diversity courses are essential for helping criminal justice students develop the necessary skills to serve as effective professionals. In fact, according to K. Tsang (personal communication, June 15, 2016) of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the most frequent careers chosen by 18-24-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice include law enforcement, social work-related fields, law-related careers, and corrections. The American Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) includes the learning of diversity as a goal for all students (AAC&U, 2007) and described diversity as “newly central to a contemporary framework” for higher education to ensure that students “learn multiple and contrasting perspectives” (Musil, 2015, p. 5). Further, multicultural diversity courses provide opportunities for students to learn about systematic discrimination (Holsinger, 2012), social disparities, oppression, discrimination, and cultural differences (e.g., race/ethnicity, sexual orientation) among groups. These courses encourage students to analyze their own views of justice and to challenge their own prejudices. Students with these skills are more likely to deal with social issues “with creativity and passion” (Holsinger, 2012, p. 123). Working toward helping criminal justice students develop multicultural competence is essential given the history of systemic discrimination against minorities and the poor as summarized by Pattern and Way (2011, p. 345). University graduates need to be prepared to address a society rife with human diversity.

Course description and content

Theoretical perspective and course application

In the course described here, we employ a critical-feminist theoretical approach. Holsinger (2002) describes this pedagogy as the theory most consistent with best practices for teaching diversity and draws on Paulo Freire’s work (1970) when describing critical pedagogy: “to help students recognize and confront [socioeconomic] class domination … to take action to end oppression” (p. 17). Feminist theory extends critical theory to include differences not only by class, but also by race, gender, and culture. We applied this theory, for example, during class discussions of power dynamics that contribute to racial/ethnic and class conflict with mainstream institutions that historically failed to provide equal opportunity to individuals in impoverished communities. We discussed topics such as deindustrialization and its negative aftermath, including redlining in the 1960s (Massey and Denton, 1993), the code of the street (Anderson, 2000), and the school to prison pipeline (NAACP, 2006). We also applied critical-feminist theory when discussing cultural differences among groups and between genders, along with responses by criminal justice professionals who often do not mirror the demographics of the clients they serve.

Course content

The criminal justice course described here is a 3-credit course titled Gender, Race, Class, and Crime. For purposes of this course, we adopted Calathes’ (1994) definition of multiculturalism: “A multicultural criminal justice curriculum incorporates … scholarly dialog among a variety of cultural and class perspectives. Such a curriculum incorporates the scholarship, history and culture of African Americans, and euro-ethnics, as well as traditional Eurocentric scholarship, and is sensitive to gender and class differences” (p. 2).

Academic topics focused on the relevance of diversity to understanding crimes committed by different groups and responses by criminal justice professionals. Topics included (but are not limited to) demystifying current myths about crime, stereotypes (e.g., the model minority), differences in world views, differences in methods of communication among different cultural groups, crime in the streets versus “crime in the suites,” and understanding the impact of gender differences (e.g., relational aggression) on offending and treatment by criminal justice officials.

Similar to Cameron (2002) and Holsinger (2012) and reflective of critical-feminist theory (Weiler, 1991), we used experiential in-class activities and students’ own lived experiences to foster learning about differences, with the teacher and students working collaboratively rather than the teacher acting as expert. As one example, the activity “Backward-Forward” (Kivel, 2002) challenged the students’ preexisting notions that all Americans have equal opportunity to succeed. The students moved backward or forward to a series of questions (e.g., if you started school speaking a language other than English, take one step backward; if your family had more than fifty books in the house when you were growing up, take one step forward), and their final destination reflected their degree of privilege. Students who landed in the front of the line had grown up with more access to privilege than if they landed in the back of the line. After the activity, the students discussed their reactions to an unequal system as a consequence of their upbringings as influenced by race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

A second example is the use of talking circles, a method of communication used among indigenous people worldwide. This activity facilitates the sharing of power between students and professor. Circles center on the values of respect, honesty, trust, and forgiveness (Umbreit, Coates, & Vos, 2002).  The chairs are organized in a circle. The professor facilitates the circle by asking the students reflection questions one at a time, but also participates by offering responses. The use of a talking piece within the circle to designate the speaker encourages listening by others and provides an opportunity for all to speak within the circle, if one so chooses. We used talking circles to discuss and delve deeply into emotionally laden topics (e.g., the verdict in the OJ Simpson case and a local case where a group of African-American teens residing in a low-income, urban community, shot and paralyzed another African-American male over a jersey).

To address the importance of exposing students to the realities of the criminal justice system, we invited guest presentations by ex-offenders. The use of personal story telling and subsequent class discussion after the presentations is consistent with critical-feminist pedagogy. One speaker served over 30 years in prison for a gang homicide, but since his release, has implemented reintegration programs. The speaker shared his experience of being strip-searched naked, beaten, and kept in the hole for seven years. The second speaker was a college student who had recently returned to the university after serving six years in prison for DUI manslaughter. Through discussions with the speakers, the students were able learn about the injustices and limitations of the criminal justice system as reported by the speakers. The class also toured a county jail.

Conceptual framework

To assess the impact of this diversity course on undergraduate students, we used a framework commonly applied to examining the effect of undergraduate multicultural classes on improving an individual’s cultural competence (e.g., Mayhew & Fernandez, 2007; Simons et al., 2011; Simons et al., 2012). This framework includes three dimensions that contribute to an individual’s multicultural competency (or their ability to work with others who are culturally different from themselves): 1) attitudes/awareness, 2) knowledge of differences, and 3) multicultural skills. Our framework is based on a linear progression of development (see Figure 1). Individual changes within the students (development of self-awareness), combined with the development of cultural knowledge, are prerequisites for attitude changes (e.g., prejudice reduction) and subsequent behavioral change (Mayhew & Fernandez, 2007).

Figure 1.  Framework for investigating diversity pedagogy and cultural competence

For our goal attainment evaluation, we assessed students’ cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills. We chose this developmental framework for several reasons: The model is designed to assess changes over time, which is consistent with our goal to measure changes during the semester; the authors could not identify alternative models and therefore used this model from the field of psychology as a starting place. Most of our students had not been exposed to diversity classes prior to this course, and therefore, we aimed to focus on change of awareness given that attitude change toward diversity is evolutionary and takes time to impact.


Sample and setting 

Describing the setting of the university is relevant as it shapes the views of university students. The university is private with about 3,500 undergraduate students and 2,800 graduate students and is located in a low-income high-crime Northeastern urban metropolitan community. Since deindustrialization, this city has become the prototype of what ails urban America. The population of the city is predominantly African American/black (77%), with 19% White and 5% Latino or Hispanic. The average household income is $25,700 (U.S. Census, 2000a), which is one half of the county average (U.S. Census, 2000b). The city accounts for 67% of all homicides and 35% of all violent crime in the county, but only consists of 8% of the county’s population (Uniform Crime Report, 2007). 

Twenty-four students (17 males and seven females) participated in our diversity course. All were full-time students. Predominantly representing the social sciences, their majors (including double majors) were criminal justice (n=14), business (n=4), political science (n=3), and psychology (n=3). The majority were white (n=20), with four African American students. The students ranged in ages from 19 to 23 with a mean age of 21. Half were seniors (n=12), followed by sophomores (n=7) and juniors (n=5). Most (n=14) students reported working during the semester. Six reported working 20 hours or more per week, four between 11 and 19 hours, and four 10 hours or fewer. Most (n=17) reported no participation in volunteer work. Five reported taking a service-learning course and eight reported having taken a diversity class in past semesters.

Research design and procedures

We chose the case study research design to permit an in-depth analysis of our course within the context of real life (Yin, 2013), and adopted Pope and Reynolds’ (1997) conceptual paradigm of cultural competence. According to Pope and Reynolds (1997), this model is an important teaching tool to develop the necessary awareness, knowledge, and skills to work effectively with individuals who are culturally different from ourselves (p. 272). Also, Pope and Reynolds (1997) specify characteristics necessary for each component (awareness, knowledge, and skills), which made testing this framework feasible. We revised Pope and Reynolds’ framework to include only those parts relevant to our course material (see Table 1). We extended the a priori theoretical model to include additional multicultural competencies relevant to our specific class. We chose these additional categories post-data collection. We assessed our study goals of measuring attitudes, knowledge, and skills using two sources of data: 1) a pre-post quantitative empathy survey and 2) the students’ final take home exam.

Students completed a short quantitative survey at the start and end of the semester and a take-home, open-ended exam at the end of the semester. The university’s Institutional Review Board approved all study procedures.


The survey included a demographic questionnaire developed by the researchers and a shortened 7-item version of the Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale (BEES) (Mehrabian & Einstein, 1972). The BEES measures empathy as defined as emotional arousal or sympathy in response to the feelings or experiences of others (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972). The 30-item BEES scale has acceptable measures of validity and internal consistency ranging from .87 to .90 (Mehrabian, 1996b). The abbreviated BEES scale has been shown to have construct validity and positively correlates with emotional and relationship success (Mehrabian, 2000). The BEES statements follow: “I hardly ever cry when watching a very sad movie;” “I very much enjoy and feel uplifted by happy endings;” “helpless old people don’t have much of an emotional effect on me;” “I cannot feel much sorrow for those who are responsible for their own misery;” “I get a strong urge to help when I see someone in distress;” “given the opportunity, I would watch an execution;” and “the sadness of a close one easily rubs off on me.”

We intentionally measured changes in empathy. Studies identify the college years as the time when students are developmentally most prepared for empathy training and when this training seems most effective (Courtright, Mackey, & Packard, 2005). This finding seems particularly relevant for criminal justice majors because studies have shown that these majors compared to other majors had the lowest levels of empathy (Courtright et al., 2005). Students with the lowest levels of empathy viewed law enforcement as an attractive profession (Courtright & Mackey, 2004). These findings point to the need for diversity courses aimed specifically to foster empathy among criminal justice majors for the purpose of developing professionals who are sensitive to the many complexities of a multicultural environment. The second source of data included final exam questions described in Table 1.


For the qualitative data, we employed the technique of pattern matching. We matched the students’ responses against the pattern initially identified (Yin, 2013). For example, for the first goal under the concept of awareness, we speculated that students would demonstrate a willingness to self-examine, and when necessary, challenge their own biases. For this goal, a match was made for students who reportedly demonstrated this willingness. For the goals requiring more than a yes-no response, we used the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 2009) to post code themes present in the data. Two coders content-analyzed the data according to categories of multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills, and inconsistencies were reconciled as needed. For the quantitative analysis, a paired t-test was used to evaluate changes in empathy attitudes before and after the class experience.


For the quantitative results using pre-post class surveys, students’ changes in empathy scores significantly increased over the semester (p<.05) from a mean of 38.2 (SD=6.2) to a mean of 42 (SD=8.3). Qualitative results are summarized in Table 1. Common themes are summarized below.

Table 1. Conceptual framework with results



Data source (exam ques.)



A willingness to self-examine, and when necessary, change, one’s own assumptions/biases *

Did any stereotype that you had prior to this class change over the course of the semester? Explain.

Reported a change in preconceived images (n=21): Asian model minority (n=10), only poor, minorities are involved in crime (n=8), loud black females (n=4). Reported no change (n=3).


A belief that differences are valuable; learning about others who are culturally different is necessary for a CJ class *

Do you believe we should diversify the CJ system? Why or why not? What is the most important thing you learned in this class over the semester?

Agreed with importance of diversifying system (n=23) to eliminate racism (n=19), better understand each other (n=8), generate trust (n=10), create more effective criminal justice system (n=7). Student expressed ambivalence whether or not to diversify (n=1).

Multicultural knowledge

Knowledge of other groups or group differences ***

Did any stereotype that you had prior to this class, change over the semester? Explain. Describe a myth studied that you originally thought was true but learned was a myth.

Identified myth that street crime is more serious than white collar crime (n=11), learned characteristics of white collar vs. street criminals, offered myth of Asian model minority, and learned cultural differences between cultural groups (n=7), about social class including the paucity of opportunities for low-income urban residents and that prison serves the middle class, not only the poor (n=4).


Knowledge about the ways that cultural differences affect verbal and nonverbal communication *

Did any stereotype that you had prior to this class change over the semester? Explain. What is the most important thing that you learned in this class this semester?

Described cultural differences (n=10): Asian-Americans avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect, African-Americans place a higher value on emotional intensity when communicating than whites, females vs. males more likely to engage in relational aggression.

Knowledge of the impact of history on minorities’ attitudes toward the CJ system **

How do you think African-American history impacts, if at all, their views of the CJ system today?

Students (n=23) said minorities continue to lack trust in the CJ system due to war on drugs, under and over policing, etc. One student disagreed.

Understanding white privilege **

Describe white privilege.

Described (n=23) accurately white privilege.

An understanding of obstacles to diversifying the CJ **

 Describe obstacles to diversifying police forces.

 All (n=24) identified at least one obstacle: minorities have a negative view of the police (n=19), lack qualifications (n=13), have a police record (n=8), are overlooked due to narrow hire searches (n=8). Students (n=8) described the challenge for females to enter a male-dominated profession.                                      

Multicultural skills

The ability to empathize ****

What is the most important thing that you learned in this class over the course of the semester?

Students (n=3) volunteered statements pointing to their ability to empathize with others different from themselves.

The ability to have meaningful interpersonal interaction ****

What is the most important thing that you learned in this class this semester?

Students (n=7) reported improved ability to communicate across differences and interact cross-culturally within the classroom.

To act in open non-judgmental **

Did you learn anything in this class that will impact how you interact with the world around you?

Most (n=22) reported an openness and an intent to act without stereotyping and to treat people with respect and equality in their future careers.

Note: *Category taken from Pope and Reynolds’ cultural competency framework (1997, 271). **Category developed for this study in particular. ***Category revised from Pope and Reynolds (1997. 271): knowledge of diverse cultures and oppressed groups (i.e. history, traditions, values, customs, resources, issues). ****Category revised from Pope and Reynolds (1997. 271): capability to empathize and connect with individuals who are different from themselves.

Multicultural awareness

The first goal outlined in Table 1 includes the willingness to self-examine, and potentially change, one’s own assumptions and biases. The process of breaking down stereotypes involves cognitive dissonance or a challenge to one’s fundamental assumptions. Almost all (n=21) students reported a change in their preconceived stereotypical images. The most frequently cited stereotype challenged the students’ belief in the Asian model minority: that “Asians were quiet and school-focused as a culture and didn’t have gangs and drug problems like other minorities in the United States” (ID #25). One shared:

Prior to this class [I thought] all Asians were smart. During this semester, I sat next to an Asian American in my Calculus course. I was under the impression that he would be able to help me throughout the course. Following the first test, I looked over at his test score and he had received an F … My stereotype … had been completely false. (ID #24)

Students also questioned the system’s response (or lack thereof) to Asian offenders. One student (ID #8) explained: “What really made me believe [the extent of problems experienced by Asians] was the Asian boy’s [experience going] in and out of the [juvenile justice] system. It made me think: How much do we overlook Asians because of our preconceptions [of the model minority]?”

Common stereotypes (n=8) focused on African Americans as the “leaders in crime statistics” (ID #1). Students acknowledged their misperceptions that focused on “the lower class black male as the average criminal” (ID #26) and that “only poor people commit crime" (ID #21). Students also reported developing an awareness that minorities lack opportunities, which contributes to an understanding of why “certain minority areas … are poor and crime riddled” (ID #21).

Several students described the impact of a guest speaker, a white middle class male college student who had completed a six-year prison term for DUI manslaughter. This presentation taught the students that crime crosses socioeconomic levels. One student (ID #22) described: “Often when we hear about those in prisons we think of the kids in the inner cities who are around the streets and not those who are educating themselves and trying to be successful.”

Four students acknowledged their stereotypes of African American females who are “loud and opinionated” (ID #22) because “their parents neglect to teach them respect and manners” (ID #26). The student continued:

My assumption was very wrong …I learned that black mothers actually socialize their daughters to be … assertive to ensure their protection in a discriminatory America. Their ancestors for many years were walked all over … and therefore, the mothers are attempting to make sure there are no chances of their daughters suffering from the same treatment. Unfortunately, I assumed because of their skin color that African Americans mainly came from lower class inner city areas that lack valuable resources and appropriate role models to teach them how to behave in public … This is a horrible stereotype that singled out young African American girls mainly because they were black. (ID #26).

Two additional students adhered to the stereotype that all females gossiped as a means to solve their problems. However, the students’ understanding of gossip became more complex after studying gender identity development and the use of female-specific relational aggression (e.g., Campbell, 1994).

Three students said their stereotypes did not change over the course of the semester. Two denied having any stereotypes. It is notable that one student (ID #18) who denied having stereotypes later wrote that the most important thing learned in class was the prevalence of stereotypes and the importance of “getting rid of my discriminatory views of other people.” The second student (ID #14) who expressed denial wrote: “In my future career, I plan to recognize and respect differences across people before stereotyping, jumping to conclusions or reacting … and implement with the least amount of bias that I can.”

Students offered the source of their stereotypes. Eight students reported learning about stereotypes through the media that “depicts the young black male as the leading criminal. This is why I was convinced that I was more likely to be victimized by a black male, than any other racial group” (ID# 2). Three students shared learning about stereotypes linking African Americans and crime as a consequence of their parents’ values. One reported (ID #1): “… I was raised to think African Americans were criminals. Through my older relatives, I truly believed African Americans were shooting and hurting all types of people.”

The second goal for multicultural awareness is the belief that differences are valuable and that learning about others who are culturally different is necessary. We measured this concept using student responses from the final exam question: “In your opinion, do you believe we should diversify the Criminal Justice system? Why or why not?” All but one student agreed with the importance of diversifying the system without reservation. Common reasons follow: to make minorities feel more comfortable, eliminate prejudice and racism (n=19), to improve communication and to better understand each other (n=8), to generate trust (n=10), to reduce crime/violence and to create a more effective criminal justice system (n=7). One student (ID #22) expressed ambivalence:

The criminal justice system needs some balance of diversity but without sacrificing quality of staff. Meaning well qualified officers should not be thrown away for less qualified officers who are of a different ethnicity. I don’t think there could ever be a balance … Affirmative Action has made it mandatory for there to be a percentage of minorities in companies. This created a reaction that has given people another reason to discriminate against others.

The students reiterated the importance of diversity when asked on the exam to identify the most important point learned in class. Twenty-three students acknowledged the importance of understanding others’ backgrounds as well as resisting stereotyping in order to prevent miscommunication and hurt feelings. Five students shared the recognition that discrimination exists, and that minorities do not trust the criminal justice system. Also mentioned was the need for diversity training. One student (ID #14) described: “There are so many differences across, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., but very little knowledge of these differences by criminal justice system [professionals]. This is critical when the [professionals] consist mainly of Caucasians but frequently come across minorities.” Another continued: (ID #8), “We need to make sure that [criminal justice professionals] understand culture differences and behaviors. This will help them communicate effectively [with their] clients and eliminate prejudices [due to] ignorance.” One student (ID #9) highlighted the importance for teachers to understand stereotypes so they know how to handle situations in and outside the classroom.

Multicultural knowledge

The first goal for multicultural knowledge focuses on the ability to identify differences among groups. All students demonstrated knowledge on their exams. All but one student accurately described white privilege (McIntosh, 1998). The students’ examples included Band-Aids made for white colored skin, poor quality legal defense, and lack of availability of quality education. One student wrote: “Most white people do not even notice these privileges” (ID #8). On the exam students identified myths which they thought were true prior to taking this class. For example, 11 students were surprised to learn that white collar crime can be more serious and cause greater harm than street crime. They originally thought white collar crime was much less damaging than street crime.

Seven students offered differences between the American and Asian culture, including academic pressure placed on Asians to succeed, the glass ceiling at work, and also high poverty and school drop-out rates, prevalence of drugs and gangs, strong extended family connections, and the norm to handle problems within the family rather than seeking professional assistance.

Four students described learning about social class; the lack of opportunities for many African Americans, and that prison serves middle class individuals, not only the poor.

The second goal concerning multicultural knowledge focuses on knowledge about the ways that cultural differences affect verbal and nonverbal communication. Ten students offered examples. The most frequently cited focused on Asians who avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect, African Americans who place a higher value on emotional intensity when communicating than whites (Matthews & Marino, 2005), and females who compared to males are more likely to engage in relational aggression (Campbell, 1994). One (ID #19) student said: “I thought African Americans who speak more like whites were more intelligent. [I learned] how people speak does not reflect intelligence … this is relevant because people learn to speak through their culture and family and where they grow up, but does not directly reflect intelligence.”

The third goal focuses on the students’ understanding of the impact of history on minorities’ attitudes toward the criminal justice system. On the exam, students were asked to describe a historical perspective of policing as it related to multiculturalism. Subsequently, they were asked, “How do you think this historical perspective impacts, if at all, minorities’ views of the criminal justice system?” All but one of the students responded that minorities continue to experience a lack of trust in the criminal justice system. One (ID #19) shared, “Many minorities who lived through previous eras of discrimination and unfair policing pass their experience down to their children, and unless the police can prove themselves trustworthy … minorities will mistrust the police because of what happened in the past, and continues to happen today.” On their exams, students discussed recent policies that continue to contribute to a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, including the war on drugs, under policing and over policing, the aftermath of deindustrialization, and, the code of the street (Anderson, 2000). One student (ID #19) shared: “[I]n a white community if someone is robbed or assaulted, [the victim] will most likely call the police. In a minority community, however, where they do not trust the police to respond or solve the problem, victims may become the aggressors and retaliate, perpetuating the cycle of violence.” Students highlighted Eliot Liebow’s “mini murders” (2003), the daily harassment that African-Americans reportedly experience by the police.

The one student (ID #15) who disagreed that history impacts minorities’ views of the criminal justice system explained, “Personally I believe that black people still try to blame people for what happened over a hundred years ago … Minorities always say that they only get arrested because they are black and white people still just want to be in control.”

All students identified at least one obstacle to diversifying police departments: minorities lack interest in the profession because they negatively view the police (n=19), lack necessary qualifications (n=13), have a police record (n=8), or are overlooked due to narrow hire searches (n=8). Several students (n=8) described the challenge for females to enter a male-dominated profession.

Multicultural skills

Students’ exam responses demonstrated skill development or the intent to act in specific ways in the future. These data emerged from the following questions: “What is the most important thing you learned in this class over the course of the semester?” and “Did you learn anything in this class that will impact how you interact with the world around you?” A commonly reported skill (n=22) focused on openness and the intent to act without bias as professionals to bring about fair treatment in the criminal justice system. Students (n=7) reported learning to talk and listen in class about African-American and Asian-American cultures and interact cross-culturally within the classroom. They reported feeling skeptical at the start of the semester, as one reported (ID #1): “At first I questioned how smoothly class would actually go. I enjoyed how it went. When you take the time to listen you hear concerns … about who is different or who has opposing viewpoints. It was great to have a multi-cultured class with kids who have had … different experiences … [I]t lets everyone get an understanding of where they are coming from.” Two students offered examples of learning in class that translated to interpersonal skills outside the class; for example: “This class already has had an effect on me because I work with a lot of Asian-Americans and I am no longer afraid to approach them. I am happy I started to talk to those I chose not to approach in the past because I have made good friendships recently because of this. It has really paid off.”

Several comments illustrated the students’ ability to connect and empathize with individuals different from themselves, their feelings of comfort in talking in class, and development of a sense of belonging. After hearing presentations by two ex-offenders in this diversity class, most students expressed empathy for both offenders and favored rehabilitation. In addition, one student (ID #22) commented: “I was happy when people could understand my side of the discussion and how others interacted with me without the feeling of race as a taboo topic.” Another (#ID 25) said that “The open atmosphere of this course allowed me to express my views, hopefully changing any preconceived opinions the other students had about me [having to be] in a wheelchair.” These examples also illustrate the student’s ability to understand the position of others and connect with individuals who are different from themselves.

Three students reported an appreciation of learning about oneself. One (ID #15) reported that the most important point learned was “how to think for myself rather than basing information on the media or what others say” and another described gaining “a better understanding of myself” (ID #22). Another said (ID #24): “This class has helped me to answer questions that were hard to understand in my life when I was younger.”

From the professor’s perspective, several conversations illustrated open and honest discussion within the classroom. The first focused on an in-class experiential exercise “Backward Forward” (Kivel, 2002). After the activity, the class discussed the concept of equal opportunity and personal feelings associated with the exercise. A group of students shared feelings of discomfort and suggested to the professor not to include the exercise in future classes. As a class, we came up with a strategy for respecting students in future classes. Prior to the activity, students would be informed that the exercise is voluntary and that no student would be required to participate. Also, if students decided to participate and felt uncomfortable, they could stop at any time or choose not to step forward or backward but remain still. The professor also decided to conduct this activity later in the semester after students and professor had achieved a higher level of comfort with each other.

Another example illustrates the openness of discussion focused on differences in communication patterns by gender and race/ethnicity. Before introducing academic readings, the professor’s style was to ask students’ opinions on the topic with the understanding that there are no correct or incorrect answers. In response to the professor’s inquiry about gender differences and use of aggression, one white male described his experience in the university cafeteria where the “black girls” seem “loud” and “disruptive.” The student spoke with honesty, respect, and frustration. The class listened intently. The professor used this student’s comment as a jumping off point to examine differences in communication patterns by race and culture. According to Matthews and Marino (2005), “Generally speaking, black culture more highly values emotional expressiveness, allowing a higher level of emotional intensity than white culture. Whites, on the other hand, are taught to control their emotions … so whites can interpret strong emotions as a negative” (p. 1). After our class discussions on this topic, the white male student who had broached the topic acknowledged that he had misunderstood the students felt comfortable approaching the girls and politely asking them to talk more softly.


Incorporating qualitative and quantitative research (albeit limited by the small sample size) allowed us to test for pre-post course differences for empathy (the only variable assessed quantitatively). Our quantitative finding that students’ empathy scores increased significantly is not consistent with past research. In a study of over 600 college students, West (2001) found that criminal justice majors did not increase their empathy scores compared with education majors whose scores did increase. Education majors are taught about empathy as part of their curriculum, which may explain the increase (West, 2001). This finding suggests that faculty should think strategically about how their curricula could help criminal justice majors to develop empathy. It could be that the pedagogical format based on class discussions (instead of teacher as expert) that fostered student participation in the construction of knowledge contributed to a sense of openness and empathy. Hence, the study of empathy and how it related to pedagogy requires further attention. This may be particularly important because previous research showed that criminal justice majors compared with others majors held more punitive attitudes toward crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system (Mackey & Courtright, 2000). The capacity for empathy is not only necessary for working within the criminal justice system, but its absence may foster apathy and self-centeredness among college students more generally (Holsinger, 2012, p. 57).

Our qualitative results also suggest that students developed empathy over the semester. It is notable that after hearing presentations by two ex-offenders, most students expressed empathy by supporting rehabilitation. Although half of the students were white, male, criminal justice majors, the diversity materials, presentations and opportunities for interaction provided the opportunity for the students to expand their preconceived viewpoints and appreciate their classmates’ and the presenters’ perspectives. This pedagogical approach is consistent with critical and feminist perspectives, both of which encourage students to understand the world from their unique social position, which can translate into understanding the perspective of others. In this class, the content was closely related to the students’ own lives, which likely fostered student interest, understanding, and empathy (Holsinger, 2012).

Most criminal justice programs are not aimed at refuting myths (Williams & Robinson, 2004), yet our results show that, when the study of myths is intentionally integrated within the course, students learn to disentangle myth from reality. Most students went beyond identifying their own biases and reported their future intent to treat offenders with fairness and respect. Interestingly, the three students who reported no change in stereotypes did respond with an intention to act unbiased as professionals.

Findings on white collar crime point to the importance of including a comparison of white collar and street crime in a diversity course and a discussion of economic justice (see Cameron, 2002). Our students reportedly were surprised at the psychological, social, and economic costs of white collar crime, responses of the criminal justice system, and their preconceived view of the “typical offender” as an African-American, low-income male (rather than a white-collar criminal). Moreover, the study of white collar crime likely contributed to students’ understanding of white privilege. Likewise, students’ preconceived notions on the Asian model minority and lack of understanding of differences in communication styles between black and white individuals point to the importance of including such topics in criminal justice classes and trainings for criminal justice professionals.

This course also demonstrates the potential impact of using a critical theoretical approach to teaching. Class members listened to each other’s perspectives, shared their world views, and learned from their classmates’ backgrounds and experiences (Cameron, 2002; Holsinger, 2012). Several students described “not feeling so alone.” Others provided examples of applying their learning outside the classroom during interactions with friends and co-workers. As noted by Holsinger (2012), having students apply their learnings about social justice to their own lives, motivates them to participate in social change beyond the classroom. Students’ recognition of biases and change of behavior in their lives is a first step toward contributing to social change.

The setting of this university is characterized by urban poverty and violence and highlights important issues for criminal justice curriculum. Students at this university, for example, receive email alerts about local crime and observe around campus residents who are demographically different than themselves. This creates an additional challenge for our program to help students overcome any tendency to develop negative attitudes that they may potentially associate with the university setting. It is critical, therefore, that our criminal justice curriculum emphasizes empathy and cross cross-cultural understanding.

The course under investigation gave students the opportunity to engage in diversity and seems to have reduced their fear of talking about difficult topics. Tatum (2007) suggested that students’ learning is impeded because they fear discussing emotionally laden topics such as race and racism. Although this study did not permit measurement of behavioral change beyond the course, the students were able to challenge the status quo and to gain an understanding of the realities of the justice system and offenders from diverse groups. Future research is required to assess more closely the processes by which awareness and knowledge contribute to attitude change and subsequent skill development in cultural competency.


Our future work will address study limitations. The quantitative results should be interpreted with caution given the small sample size. Also, there may be self-report biases. A self-study by the professor of the class increases the risk of threats to reliability and validity. We attempted to increase reliability by having two independent coders (not the professor of the course) analyze the qualitative data. It is also questionable as to whether the students reported honestly on the quantitative survey and final exam. The classroom norm emphasizing respect and honesty may have minimized false reporting within the class and on the post-test survey. The results may be impacted by a self-selection bias of students who chose this diversity elective, thereby limiting the generalizability of results.

Our sample has limited generalizability to the larger university population. Compared to the university population, our study included a higher percentage of male (71% compared to 55%) and white students (83% compared to 70%). Fewer students (29%) in our study reported involvement in service activities compared to the university population (70%). This difference in service involvement may be explained by the finding that 58% of our sample had a job during the semester, with less time to devote to service. The criminal justice department tends to attract students who focus on the practical application of criminal justice, seek full-time employment within the criminal justice system post-graduation, and use the criminal justice degree as a stepping stone to a career, which may help to explain differences between our sample and other majors across the larger university. Collecting more detailed data on the students’ backgrounds and motivations for majoring in criminal justice would provide valuable information for designing effective diversity classes within the discipline of criminal justice.

Additionally, the absence of a control group and pre-post for the concepts assessed on the final exam precluded making statements about the impact of the program on student outcomes. Thus, as an extension of this study, we are continuing to collect data to obtain a larger sample size with a control group.

In the current sample, over half of the class members were seniors who expected to enter the criminal justice profession. It is important to introduce the study of diversity during the early college years so that students have the time necessary to grapple with complicated issues related to multiculturalism. This is particularly true of students who enter college with little experience interacting with individuals from diverse cultures. Several students shared that they were raised with biases, confirming the importance of integrating diversity courses early and throughout their college careers. The relevance of early exposure can be illustrated by one of the students who disagreed that history impacts minorities’ views. This student expressed that black people still try to blame white people for what happened over a hundred years ago. According to racial identity development, this student appears at the “Contact Stage,” characterized by a lack awareness of racism and white privilege. Individuals at this stage often base attitudes on stereotypes (Helms, 1990). Ongoing exposure to diversity courses may help students become more aware of the complexities of the history of racism. In addition, to respect the students’ varying backgrounds, it would behoove professors to provide a balanced perspective (conservative versus liberal) (Holsinger, 2012, p. 114) and according to Arrigo (2008), act “even handed and fair” (Holsinger, 2012, p. 116).

Future study of this type of diversity class will include an introduction to the larger context of institutional norms of policing. These issues transcend the individual-level attitudes assessed in this paper, and include, for example, the militarization of law enforcement (Ivie & Garland, 2011; Shernock, 2015). This topic is relevant to a criminal justice diversity course, given the research findings concerning the impact of past military experience on police performance (e.g., see Shernock for a review). Shernock (2015) cites findings that officers with histories of combat have less empathy and tolerance for citizen complaints and more suspicion of citizens as a consequence of nationality (p. 5). Such findings highlight the importance of studying institutional norms in addition to individual attitudes.

Despite these identified limitations, this paper is one of the few that addresses the topic of diversity within a criminal justice class. Due to the paucity of multicultural research in the field of criminal justice pedagogy, it is essential to move forward with this line of research. Criminal justice as a major reaches a multitude of students who will serve as our future criminal justice professionals. Given that criminal justice remains one of the top 10 most popular university majors (Stockwell, 2014), and that 350,000 students major in criminal justice (Butterfield, 1998), our study offers a preliminary framework for future research.

In addition, our results point to the value of a multicultural approach. Most students experienced a decrease in their biases, described the importance of learning about cultural differences in a criminal justice class, identified differences by social position, acknowledged the impact of history on minorities’ attitudes toward the criminal justice system, identified obstacles to diversifying the system, and reported intent to serve as future criminal justice professionals with fairness. In a Pew report (2013), about twice as many blacks as whites (70%-37%) claim that “blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.” Diversity classes have the potential to reduce this by studying differences in worldviews among people of distinct cultures.

A recent Department of Justice (2015) analysis of policing in Ferguson, Missouri, as a consequence of the Michael Brown shooting, points to “unconstitutional policing … that inflicts unnecessary harm on the residents of Ferguson ... practices that reflect and exacerbate racial disparities and stereotypes … [and] clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans and discriminatory intent” (p. 2). Although the findings in Ferguson are driven by complex factors (DOJ, 2015), ongoing diversity courses offered to university students (and those currently in policing) may contribute to reducing tensions between the community and police and consequently result in improved relations. Such tragic outcomes in Ferguson and beyond (Kindy, Fisher, Tate, & Jenkins, 2014) bolster Barak’s (1991) claim that using a multicultural perspective of crime will enhance criminological theory, methods of investigation, and policies. Improved understanding of diversity should help to obviate retaliatory actions by loners in the community, such as the shooting death of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, one week after fatal police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana (Fernandez, Perez-Pena, & Bromwich, 2016).

Our study was a first step toward providing students with an opportunity to examine the criminal justice system from varied, complex perspectives. The discipline of criminal justice has advanced regarding integration of diversity, but has a long way to go. Only 14% of institutions require a diversity class. Of the 67% that offer a diversity class as an elective, there are no data on how often those classes are actually taught (Pattern & Way, 2011). Often, courses listed in the university bulletin are infrequently taught (Holsinger, 2012). With further research and curriculum development, we can strive toward our goal for students to use their learning within the profession to foster practices of justice from complex perspectives and world views to reduce the incidents increasingly pandemic in the criminal justice system today.


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Lori Simons teaches courses in Multicultural Psychology, Educational Psychology, Addictive Behaviors and Counseling and Careers in Psychology. Dr. Simons serves as the Psychology Department's Practicum/Internship Coordinator and as the Co-Coordinator of the University's Academic Service-Learning Faculty Development Program. Dr. Simons has published in the area of academic-and cultural-based service-learning, diversity and experiential learning pedagogies, and student learning. 

Nancy Blank teaches courses in Criminal Courts, Diversity in Criminal Justice and Criminal Justice Research. She serves as the Criminal Justice Department's Internship Coordinator. Dr. Blank has designed, implemented and evaluated literacy programs for youthful offenders and conducts research on experiential and active learning pedagogies.

 David Fernandez was a Psychology major undergraduate student who served as a research assistant on this project.


The authors would like to thank Donald Wallace and Robert Bonk for their editorial assistance and thought-provoking comments throughout the preparation of this manuscript.

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