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Public Opinion and Crime - Sentencing

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One of the most intriguing areas of public opinion concerns public preferences with regard to criminal sentencing. Research in this area is unusually consistent in its findings and implications. First, having themselves invented the prison as a means for punishing criminals, Americans today regard imprisonment as the appropriate form of punishment for nearly all crimes, and other options (fines, restitution) are ordinarily viewed as supplements rather than substitutes for imprisonment. Second, the prison sentences preferred by citizens are, on average, considerably longer than those actually served by offenders in the United States. This preference for long sentences is quite evident in social surveys showing that enormous majorities of Americans (more than 80 percent in nearly every year since 1976) think that the courts in their area do not deal "harshly enough" with criminals. Still another finding from research is that the prison sentences preferred by the general public for different crimes are directly proportional to the perceived seriousness of those crimes, meaning that Americans endorse the notion that "the punishment must fit the crime" (Warr, 1994, 1995).

It is difficult to read into these finding anything other than a certain anger and punitiveness toward criminals on the part of the American public, combined with a very practical approach to crime control that emphasizes incarceration. At the same time, however, there is some evidence that Americans combine their insistence on strict punishment with a genuine concern for rehabilitation (e.g., Warr and Stafford, 1984), presumably on the knowledge that most offenders will eventually be released again into society. It is perhaps fair to say, then, that citizens of this country often approach matters of criminal justice with a tough, but not necessarily unthinking or hard-hearted, frame of mind.

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