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Public Opinion and Crime

Fear Of Crime, The Death Penalty, The Police, Sentencing, The Seriousness Of Crimes

Like the economy, politics, or religion, crime is a regular topic of national public opinion surveys, and journalists and social commentators often remark on the public mood when it comes to issues like the death penalty, police use of force, or fear of crime. For their part, criminologists have become increasingly interested in how the general public perceives or feels about matters related to crime and punishment, partly in recognition that some social consequences of crime (particularly fear of crime) depend on public perceptions of crime, but also in acknowledgment that public opinion can influence law and public policy.

Gathering data on public opinion about crime would seem to be an unobjectionable practice, particularly in a poll-obsessed culture like that of the United States. But there are serious and legitimate questions about the uses of public opinion data on crime, especially when those data are to be used to guide public policy. One of the very purposes of a criminal justice system is to protect accused persons from the coarser manifestations of public opinion (rumor, vigilantism, lynchings), and few scholars would claim that public opinion on matters of criminal justice is always informed opinion. To some social and legal analysts, the notion of linking criminal justice policy (e.g., sentencing or parole policy) to the shifting winds of public opinion is abhorrent to the very ideas of legality, precedent, and dispassionate justice.

At the same time, however, democratic societies like the United States grant a pivotal role to public opinion in many domains of life, and the thought of relinquishing social policy decisions to "experts" is repugnant to many citizens. Although legislators and judicial officials ought not be rigidly bound by public opinion, there are matters in which it may be legitimately consulted (for example, issues of expense or public safety). When it comes to understanding the causes and consequences of crime, many phenomena of deep interest to criminologists (e.g, the perceived certainty of punishment, the perceived seriousness of crimes, the perceived risk of victimization) can only be measured through surveys of the general public because they are intrinsically subjective phenomena. And although critics are sometimes quick to dismiss public opinion on crime as coarse and unreflective, public opinion on some criminal justice issues is surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced (Warr, 1995).

However these competing positions may settle out, there remains the fact that a great deal of survey data concerning crime and punishment has accumulated in recent decades, and public opinion continues to figure heavily in political races and public policy. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to review some of the principal findings of survey research on crime and punishment.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law