The Impact of Extralegal Bias in Assignment to Anger Management

The Impact of Extralegal Bias in Assignment to Anger Management

Being African American, Hispanic, or male significantly increases the likelihood of being required to complete anger management therapy as a condition of probation, beyond what would be expected considering their crime, county of jurisdiction, and judge presiding over the case. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2020, Vol. 44, No. 1, 88-96

Racial/Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Anger Management Therapy as a Probation Condition


Cassandra A. Bailey, Sam Houston State University
Betsy E. Galicia, Sam Houston State University
Kalin Z. Salinas, Houston State University
Melissa Briones, Sam Houston State University
Sheila Hugo, Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Huntsville, Texas
Kristin Hunter, Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Huntsville, Texas
Amanda C. Venta, Sam Houston State University


Objective: This study examined whether race/ethnicity and gender predicted sentencing to anger management therapy as a probation condition. Hypotheses: We predicted judges would be more likely to assign African Americans and Hispanics, and males to anger management than Caucasians and women, respectively. We hypothesized demographic variables would predict assignment to anger management beyond legal and nondefendant extralegal variables. Method: Data for this study are administrative and originate from an adult probation department in southern Texas. The sample (N = 4,001; 72.3% male) was 53.4% Caucasian, 28.6% African American, 16.7% Hispanic, 0.9% other, and 0.4% unknown and included individuals who had committed violent (14.2%) and nonviolent (85.8%) offenses. Results: Data analyses consisted of binary logistic regression, with anger management placement as the dependent variable, and offense, judge, county, race/ethnicity, and gender as the independent variables. The final model emerged as statistically significant, χ²(16) = 552.76, p < .001, Nagelkerke’s R² = .32. Specifically, the odds of receiving anger management were 1.71 times higher for African Americans than Caucasians, and 1.68 times higher for men than women. Exploratory analyses examining a Race/Ethnicity × Gender interaction revealed the odds of receiving anger management was significantly lower for Caucasian women than all other racial/ethnic by gender groups. Conclusion: Results suggest being part of a racial/ethnic minority group or male may disproportionately increase the odds of being required to comply with extra time and fiscal requirements associated with anger management as compared to one’s racial/ethnic and gender counterparts who have committed similar crimes.


anger management, probation condition, gender, race/ethnicity, disparities

Summary of the Research

“It has been well-researched that the U.S. criminal justice system has a history of racial bias and unequal treatment of racial/ethnic minorities as more dangerous and requiring harsher punishments. In addition to race/ethnicity, studies show gender impacts perception of threat and severity of prison punishment, such that men are perceived as more aggressive and receive harsher and longer sentences. However, less is known about the impact of race/ethnicity and gender on probation sentencing conditions. Specifically, no data exist on the impact of race/ethnicity and gender on anger management therapy as a probation condition. Considering research is mixed regarding the effectiveness of anger management programs, the current study may help identify those who are sentenced to a needless condition based on extralegal variables. Due to the documented disparities in prison sentencing and research on stereotypes suggesting both men and racial/ethnic minorities are perceived as more dangerous and aggressive, it would be beneficial to know if and how extralegal factors are influential in one’s assignment to anger management therapy. Thus, the current study broadly aims to examine demographic characteristics that may ostensibly affect sentencing to anger management as a probation condition” (p. 88-89).

“Anger management aims to reduce intensity and frequency of anger and aggressive outbursts, as well as prevent reoffending. The specifics of who would benefit from anger management therapy as a probation condition, how long these programs should last to be effective, and if there are any lasting positive effects of anger management therapy are unknown. Anger management therapy places a heavy burden on the time and resources of the offender, removing offenders from other responsibilities, such as work, community involvement, or domestic commitments to successfully comply with therapy. Probationers may be required to attend anger management therapy multiple times a week, oftentimes for months, and each session can cost between $80 and $150. If probationers find themselves unable to successfully complete the conditions of their probation, they have violated the terms of their sentence, and may end up incarcerated. Although there is no publicly available database of national statistics regarding who successfully completes anger management after referral, the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that only 63.26% of those sentenced to probation successfully completed their probated sentence for the most recent year for which data were available. Given the resource and time demands of anger management as a probation condition, the possible presence of ethnic/racial or gender bias in assignment to anger management is a serious problem that might be placing excessive demands on certain offender groups and, further, decrease their likelihood of and ability to comply with the conditions of their probation” (p. 89).

“Punishments should be directly related to the crime committed, such that more severe crimes warrant harsher punishments. States have created sentencing guidelines to minimize racial/ethnic disparities, yet racial/ethnic minorities are still being sentenced above the statutory guideline recommendations, which are based on the defendant’s offense and criminal history, and are less likely than Caucasians to be given a sentence below guideline recommendations. In examining possible racial, ethnic, and gender bias, it is important to note that extralegal variables unrelated to the defendant have also been shown to influence punishment rendered. For example, certain states and counties take differing stands on how different crimes should be punished. Within certain counties, specific judges may have stricter or more lenient views on punishment depending on the crime. County and judge viewpoints, however, are held constant across all individuals who have court in that particular county or with that particular judge. Thus, although extralegal nondefendant variables affect the sentencing, the effect is small in relative comparison to extralegal defendant variables that vary from person to person” (p. 89).

“[T]he research suggests that whether conscious or not, Caucasians may perceive African American and Hispanic individuals as well as men as more dangerous and in need of reform following assessment of risk. Extrapolating extant research, Caucasian judges, then, may be more likely to assign racial/ethnic minority and/or male defendants to anger management therapy on the assumption that anger management reduces anger and aggression and prevents reoffending, despite mixed evidence regarding its effectiveness” (p. 90).

“[T]his study examined whether race/ethnicity and gender significantly affect assignment to anger management as a probation condition, above and beyond known determinants like crime and nondefendant variables. To our knowledge, no studies have examined the relationship between race/ethnicity or gender and anger management placement. Given the existing literature on race/ethnicity and gender disparities on sentencing and perceptions of racial/ethnic minorities and men as more aggressive and dangerous, it is possible these demographic factors influence assignment to anger management, as well. Finding that judges assign certain offender groups to a more time-consuming and costly probation based on variables unrelated to their crime would pose a significant problem” (p. 90).

“Our hypothesized results demonstrated that men and African Americans were most disproportionately sentenced to anger management, while exploratory analyses revealed a Race/Ethnicity × Gender interaction, such that judges were least likely to assign Caucasian women to anger management as a probation condition. Results suggest certain racial/ethnic and gender groups are required to comply with the supplementary probation condition of anger management, which requires time and money, more often than their racial/ethnic and gender counterparts for similar crimes committed in the same county of prosecution and tried with the same judge. Extant literature demonstrates that the more fiscal and time demands that are placed on offenders, the decreased likelihood offenders have of complying with the conditions of their probation” (p. 93).

“In the current study, judges sentenced African American men and women to anger management more than their Caucasian counterparts, and judges sentenced Hispanic men and women more than Caucasian women, but not more than the Caucasian male/female aggregate group. Results propose the complete relationship between variables cannot be understood by race/ethnicity or gender alone but requires the interaction of such variables to fully appreciate associations. Findings replicate similar research suggesting a Race/Ethnicity × Gender interaction exists for prison sentencing. This interaction may help explain several prior studies illustrating that race/ethnicity alone does not have an effect on judicial decisions” (p. 94).

Translating Research into Practice

“The purpose of anger management programs is supposed to be to reduce anger and aggressive outbursts and prevent reoffending, yet judges seem to more often assign racial/ethnic minority groups and men to anger management as a probation condition than their counterparts. This research finds that demographic characteristics affect sentencing to anger management beyond what would be expected considering the crime. The study identifies certain groups as being sentenced to a condition that research has not established as effective. Sentencing disparities are possibly due to documented perceptions of racial/ethnic minorities and men as angrier, more hostile, and/or more threatening. The fiscal and time demands that anger management places on offenders, and the potential for an antitherapeutic effect of this condition disproportionately affects certain offender groups, which is a serious problem for our justice system” (p. 95).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Research is still needed, however, on what participant characteristics affect treatment outcomes, specifically in probationers assigned to anger management therapy. Indeed, this information could be used in the risk and needs assessment considered by the judge when assigning conditions to defendants sentenced to probation. Available research (one specifically on probationers), has demonstrated reductions in anger post treatment for those that believed they had a problem with anger and were motivated for treatment. Yet, judges would be unlikely to refrain from sentencing someone to anger management only because they did not think they had an anger problem or were not motivated for treatment, suggesting research must continue to search for more applicable results” (p. 94).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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