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Public Opinion and Crime - The Seriousness Of Crimes

perceived objective judgments individuals

When it comes to crime, few aspects of public opinion have been more thoroughly investigated than public beliefs about the seriousness of crimes. At first glance, the seriousness of a crime might seem to be an objective property of a crime (just as weight or mass are objective properties of an object), but seriousness is a perceptual or subjective property of crimes, one that can vary considerably across individuals, cultures, and over time. One need only consider behaviors like smoking marijuana or homosexual conduct to appreciate the range of public opinion when it comes to seriousness. Even when the seriousness of a crime can be quantified through some objective metric (e.g., the dollar value of stolen property), it does not necessarily correspond in any simple way with the perceived seriousness of the crime. For example, is an armed robbery that nets one hundred dollars twenty times as serious as one that nets five dollars? Few would say so (e.g., Wolfgang et al.).

Judgments about the seriousness of crimes seem to be critical to the way that most individuals think about crime, because seriousness is strongly related to many other public perceptions, judgments, and reactions, including beliefs about appropriate penalties for different crimes, perceptions of the frequencies of crimes, fear of crime, judgments concerning the likelihood of arrest, and other crime-related phenomena. Several large-scale surveys have been conducted in recent decades to precisely measure public opinion about the seriousness of crimes, and the results are both predictable and surprising (see Wolfgang et al.; Warr, 1994). In general, crimes against persons are perceived to be the most serious offenses, although some nonviolent acts (e.g., selling heroin) fall within the same seriousness range as violent crimes. The perceived seriousness of an offense can vary greatly depending on who the victim and offender are. Violence between strangers, for example, is perceived to be more serious than violence between intimates, even when the events are otherwise comparable. The physical vulnerability of the victim also affects seriousness judgments; striking an elderly woman is not the same as striking a young man. In general, there is a good deal of agreement about the seriousness of crimes within our society, although some behaviors (e.g., certain forms of drug use) remain contentious issues.

Some evidence indicates that individuals often differentiate between two elements of seriousness, the harmfulness of an act (i.e., the damage it inflicts) and its wrongfulness (moral gravity). Some offenses are perceived to be more wrong than they are harmful (e.g., stealing fifteen dollars from a close friend, shoplifting a pair of socks from a store), whereas others (disturbing the neighborhood with noisy behavior, killing a pedestrian while speeding) are perceived to be more harmful than they are wrong (Warr, 1989). In everyday life, it is clear that the seriousness attached to some acts (e.g., burning the flag or displaying the Swastika) has much less to do with their objective harmfulness than with the fact that they violate powerful social taboos.

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