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Public Opinion and Crime - Conclusion

issue political presidential attention

Understanding public opinion on crime is of enormous importance to criminology. Some properties of criminal behavior (e.g., the perceived seriousness of crimes) are virtually meaningless without reference to public opinion, and some of the consequences of crime (e.g., public fear of crime) depend on public perceptions of the risk of victimization. It is not surprising, therefore, that criminologists have come to increasingly focus their attention on public opinion regarding crime and punishment.

That attention, unfortunately, is shared by people whose intentions are less noble. One of the more glaring and disappointing features of contemporary American politics is the tendency of political candidates to exploit and capitalize on public fear and anger over crime in an effort to win votes. Crime, in fact, has figured as a major issue in every presidential election since Richard Nixon took office, and may have been the pivotal issue in one or more presidential elections (recall the Willie Horton commercials in the Bush/Dukakis contest). At a more local level, crime regularly dominates political campaigns from the mayor's to the governor's office. The point is not that crime is not a legitimate subject of public discourse, but rather that efforts to garner votes using the issue of crime frequently transform what is an intrinsically complex subject matter into an object of sloganeering, bumper stickers, and specious efforts to demonstrate who is more "tough on crime." Rather than stimulate discussion, the transformation of crime into a political issue has acted to discourage sensible and reasoned public debate on critical issues of crime and punishment. The result, too often, has been policies that possess superficial appeal but fail to address the real problems of crime and justice.

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