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Attitudes and Public Opinion About Punishment

Summary and Keywords

The United States is unique in its reliance on incarceration. In 2018 the United States had the largest prison population in the world—more than 2.1 million people—and incarcerated 655 per 100,000 residents, the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. public also holds more punitive attitudes in comparison to citizens of other Western, developed countries. For example, when presented with the same description about a hypothetical criminal event, Americans consistently prefer longer sentences compared to residents of other countries. Attitudes about the death penalty are also instructive. Although international support for the death penalty has declined dramatically over time, the majority of Americans are still in favor of capital punishment for certain crimes. In comparison, Great Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, and only 45% of its citizens continue to support capital punishment. This raises an important question: Can understanding the will of the public help explain how governments respond to crime?

The answer to this question is more complicated than expected upon first consideration. The United States generally starts from a more punitive stance than other countries, in part because it experiences more violent crime but also because Americans hold different moral and cultural views about crime and punishment. U.S. public officials, including lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors, are responsive to trends in public attitudes. When the public mood became more punitive during the 1990s, for example, U.S. states universally increased the length of prison sentences and expanded the number of behaviors punishable by incarceration. Similarly, the public mood moderated in the United States toward the end of the 2000s, and states began reducing their prison populations and supporting sentencing reform. It is also true, however, that public officials overestimate how punitive the public is while citizens underestimate how harsh the justice system is. Moreover, the public supports alternatives to tough sentences including prevention, treatment, and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for juveniles and nonviolent offenders. Thus public opinion about punishment is multifaceted and complex, necessitating the exploration of many factors to understand it.

Looking at public attitudes about punishment over time, across culture and societies, and in a variety of ways can help explain why social responses to crime change and why some people or groups of people are more punitive than others. Two ideas are helpful in organizing motivations for punishment. First, public support for punishment may be motivated by rational, instrumental interests about how best to protect public safety. Public concern about crime is a particularly important influence on trends in the public mood, but fear of crime and victimization are inconsistently related to how individuals feel about punishment. Second, attitudes about punishment are tied to expressive desires. Attitudes are influenced by culture and moral beliefs about how to respond to harm and violations of the law. Thus attitudes about punishment are relevant in understanding how the public thinks about the problem of crime, as how people think and feel about crime influences what they think and feel should be done about it.

Keywords: public opinion, attitudes, punishment, punitive, sentencing policy, crime, public mood

Introduction

This work is not intended to be exhaustive: it is not a comprehensive review; rather, the intent is to introduce the reader to the primary studies and key debates within the field of attitudes and public opinion about punishment. This leads to the structure of the article beginning with an overview of what is known about the main causes of public attitudes about punishment. Then the article reviews a subset of the literature on what the implications of these attitudes for public policy are, namely the literature on the public mood. This provides a brief introduction into a small subset of the broader field of the politics of punishment so that the reader understands the importance of further studies about public attitudes on punishment. Finally, the article ends with a brief overview of more recent findings regarding the impact of public attitudes on punishment.

The Role of Public Attitudes About Punishment

Attitudes and public opinion about punishment occupy an important place in the study of criminal justice. Broadly speaking, criminal justice is concerned with understanding and explaining how governments respond to and define crime (Maguire & Duffee, 2015; also see Tonry, 2011). In all societies, beliefs influence the types of behaviors that are criminalized and the social response to wrongdoing. In democratic societies in particular, public opinion has the potential to influence law making and law enforcement through the election of politicians who are responsive to the will of the public or by direct vote on referendums. Some theorists argue the authority of governments to enforce the law and punish crime, and the willingness of individuals to obey the law, depends on whether the public and individuals view these actions as legitimate (Bottoms & Tankebe, 2012; Tyler, 2006). Other scholars are interested in understanding how public opinion, especially social panics, affect the policies that are put into place. In brief, public attitudes may explain how and why governments punish behaviors that violate the law.

Of equal interest to explaining the effect of public attitudes on government responses to crime is the desire to explain the causes of attitudes about punishment. In other words, why does the public endorse some types of punishment but not others, and why does the level and nature of punishment vary by place and over time? Answering these questions may explain why Singapore uses corporal punishment while Germany favors fines. In the United States, recent scholarship has focused on explaining preferences for more or less severe punishments, support for various philosophies of punishment, and support for specific policy preferences or sanctions. This work draws on a rich variety of theoretical orientations and is motivated by a diversity of research interests.

One way that scholars simplify and organize the study of public attitudes about punishment, whether they seek to understand the causes or effects of public opinion, is by distinguishing between instrumental and expressive motivations. Instrumental motivations for punishment are rooted in the rational desire to achieve a practical purpose. Thus the public may support increasing the length of prison sentences or providing prisoners with treatment because they believe doing so will lead to greater public safety. Expressive motivations for punishment are rooted in intrinsic and affective desires that reflect meanings, values, and emotions. Thus the public may support increasing the length of prison sentences or providing prisoners with treatment because doing so is an expression of a belief or an emotion.

The neat distinction between instrumental and expressive motivations for punishment may be too simplistic. As explored later, the causes and effects of public opinion about punishment are complicated and often intertwined. A recent study, for example, argues the public supports instrumental justifications for punishment because doing so is emotionally pleasing. The following section thus details the state of the literature on the effect of public opinion about punishment. The article then explores the various causes of public opinion, examining what research establishes about the influence of instrumental and expressive motivations to punish.

Complexity of Attitudes About Punishment

Considering the complexity of attitudes about punishment is a good starting place to understand various critiques of research findings and the importance of more recent research studies that specifically examine complexity. By the end of the 1990s, a consensus emerged in the research literature that the public was growing more punitive and generally supported the “get tough on crime” movement. Nevertheless, studies also made clear that single-item questions measuring support for punitive policies did not capture the nuance of the public’s views (Cullen, Fisher, & Applegate, 2000). While the public approves of punitive sanctions, their opinions are elastic or “mushy.” Members of the public support harsh punishment policies, yet they are generally willing to support less punitive options when they are aware of alternatives, particularly for lower level offenders and juveniles (Cullen et al., 2000; Sundt, Cullen, Applegate, & Turner, 1998). Also, support for rehabilitation exists alongside more punitive attitudes (Hutton, 2005). For example, Thielo, Cullen, Cohen, and Chouhy (2016) found that even in the context of Texas, a traditionally conservative state that one might expect to have the most punitive public of the United States, there was overwhelming support of rehabilitation rather than punishment, particularly for less severe offenders. Further, Sundt, Cullen, Thielo, and Jonson (2015) found strong support for preventive, rehabilitative policies and support for specific policies to reduce prison populations. Yet, in the abstract, the public rejected the idea of reducing the prison population in order to save money (Sundt et al., 2015). This study illustrates the potential difference between general and specific attitudes and why it can be important to distinguish between the two.

General attitudes refer to public opinion about appropriate punishments for certain groups of offenders or offenders in a general sense (Cullen et al., 2000). Specific attitudes, in contrast, provide individuals with a scenario of an offender and the circumstances surrounding the crime and give them punishment options for which they provide preferences (Cullen et al., 2000). Research finds a higher propensity for punitiveness at the general level due to a variety of factors including a lack of information and knowledge about punishment among the public. In contrast, measures of specific attitudes include additional information and may tap into a desire for multiple or conflicting goals of punishment (Applegate, Cullen, Turner, & Sundt, 1996; Cullen et al., 2000; Sundt et al., 1998).

The difference between general and specific attitudes complicates the relationship between public attitudes and policy results. First, it is hard to distinguish between methodological effects associated with different types of questions and substantive nuance between global and specific attitudes (de Keijser & Elffers, 2009; Frost, 2010; Hutton, 2005; McCorkle, 1993; Payne, Gainey, Triplett, & Danner, 2004). Second, Pickett (2019) cautions that focusing on the nuance of general versus specific attitudes distracts from larger trends in attitudes about punishment. This is an important caveat. Further adding complexity to the study of public attitudes is the debate as to whether these are multidimensional. Unnever, Cochran, Cullen, and Applegate (2010) argue “that individuals simultaneously can base their support for correctional policies on dispositional and situational attributions” (pp. 451–452). Importantly, however, Pickett and Baker (2014) show that some of these results may be due to acquiescence bias, a type of measurement error wherein respondents tend to agree with statements irrespective of the content. More research is needed to understand the effect of crime attributions on attitudes about punishment. Whether unidimensional or multidimensional, punitiveness and progressiveness are both necessary to understand public opinion about punishment (Maguire & Johnson, 2015; Pickett & Baker, 2014). As discussed in greater detail later, distinguishing between general and specific attitudes and understanding the methodological challenges in measurement of attitudes is important for understanding the academic debates about whether and how public opinion influences policy.

Causes of Public Attitudes About Punishment

As previewed earlier, the causes of public attitudes about punishment can be organized into the categories of instrumental/rational, expressive, and symbolic. These categories are explored here at length to illustrate the state of the literature on each type.

Instrumental, Rational Influences on Punishment Attitudes

Instrumental reasons, which refer to crime-related beliefs (Hirtenlehner, 2011), help explain why so many Americans supported the increase in incarceration through the later part of the 21st century (Useem, Liedka, & Piehl, 2003; Zimring & Johnson, 2006). Nevertheless, the findings about different instrumental influences on individual punishment attitudes are inconsistent. For example, how salient crime is, as well as one’s fear of crime, predict more punitive attitudes in some studies (Costelloe, Chiricos, & Gertz, 2009; Zimring & Johnson, 2006). The escalating crime–distrust model predicts, for example, that when people believe crime is rising and simultaneously distrust the ability of government to effectively respond to the threat, they will be more punitive (Unnever & Cullen, 2010; Zimring & Johnson, 2006). Further, perceiving punishment as too lenient leads to higher levels of punitive attitudes (Zimring & Johnson, 2006). Yet other studies, typically based on cross-sectional surveys, find little to no effect of fear of crime on punishment attitudes (Hirtenlehner, 2011; King & Maruna, 2009; Sundt, Schwaeble, & Merritt, 2019; Taylor, Scheppele, & Stinchcombe, 1979). Furthermore, victimization is inconsistently related to punitiveness (Taylor et al., 1979). Yet Wozniak (2016) criticizes the literature’s reliance on measuring instrumental effects through fear of crime and victimization. When using measures of perceptions of prisons, such as whether life in prison is easy, Wozniak found this instrumental cause to outweigh other traditional measures such as political ideology and symbolic racism (see also Wozniak, 2017).

Another type of influence on punitive attitudes constituting instrumental or rational is whether or not one perceives offenders to be redeemable. Maruna and King (2009) found that belief in this idea of redeemability, or that offenders are able to change, outweighed the influence of fear of crime, with this belief leading to a strong decrease in punitiveness. Instrumental influences also encompass political structural factors. Sundt et al. (2019) concluded that the public endorsed mandatory sentences primarily because they believed it to be good policy: they had confidence in prosecutors, but not judges, and believed that prisons protect the public from crime. Similarly, Unnever and colleagues (2010) found the public is not drawing their attitudes only from ideology; rather, they operate pragmatically based on the policy. It should be noted, though, that Pickett and Baker (2014) find that respondents may not be as pragmatic as they appear. Barker (2007) emphasizes the influence of political context (defined as the democratic process structure) on the extent to which victims’ rights movements led to punitive results, with more democratic structures leading to lower levels of punitiveness. These works suggest that the broad context in terms of politics must be considered when discussing instrumental influences on punishment attitudes. Finally, according to Freiburg (2001), although politicians may design policies to address instrumental concerns and prevent crime, this is not enough. To be viable, these policies must also address the emotional aspects related to punishment policy (Freiburg, 2001).

Expressive Influences on Punishment Attitudes

Although there is growing evidence that aggregate levels of public mood are influenced by concern with crime, a range of more expressive influences may be more important in explaining why some people are more punitive than others. Expressive influences include any attitudes driven by an emotional reaction about any number of social conditions, such as erosion of the social order (Hirtenlehner, 2011). For example, anger about crime is a significant predictor of increased punitiveness (Johnson, 2009). Societal and regional differences, religiosity, and gender and race represent more specific predictors of attitudes about punishment that occur within the context of a culture of control (discussed in the section on the public mood’s effect on punishment) and are among the factors influencing the larger shifts which may occur in public opinion.

Societal and Regional Differences

In their study of punitive attitudes in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Roberts, Stalans, Indermaur, and Hough (2003) found great alignment in attitudes, despite differences in contexts. To examine regional differences among a close neighbor to the United States, Doob and Webster (2006) conducted a study of why Canada avoided the buildup of prison populations seen in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. They find moderating or protecting factors to be responsible: although Canada passed policies which at face seem punitive, such as mandatory sentencing, their impact on the incarceration level has been minimal (Doob & Webster, 2006). Thus procedural differences insulated Canada’s system from the impact of rising punitiveness, rather than fundamental differences in the punitiveness of the public in these countries (Doob & Webster, 2006). This aligns with the findings of Roberts and colleagues (2003) in that Canada is not an exception to the punitive trend in English-speaking countries.

This article focuses almost exclusively on American and Western studies of public opinion because this topic has not been examined very closely outside of these areas. There are a few studies of note, though, which are in English. Maguire and Johnson (2015) studied attitudes within seven countries in the Caribbean region, which they emphasize have differing structural factors, making the study setting useful. One finding was a lack of confidence in criminal justice systems, which is unique to this postcolonial setting (Maguire & Johnson, 2015). Also, the salience of crime in the different countries studied varied, which bolstered their claim that commitment to both punitive and progressive policies is more universal than previously thought (Maguire & Johnson, 2015). In studies of China, Liang, Lu, Miethe, and Zhang (2006) found in an exploratory study of Chinese student attitudes toward the death penalty that their opinions were comparable to those observed in Western countries. Also, Cao and Cullen (2001) find that Chinese and American individuals are more similar than they are different when it comes to attitudes about punishment.

In a cross-national study, Mayhew and van Kesteren (2002) compared results to one question about appropriate punishment when given a specific scenario among respondents from 58 different countries. They found in terms of specific country differences that, for example, the United States and Canada were more punitive than Australia and New Zealand (Mayhew & van Kesteren, 2002). Regionally, when one compares support for prison or community service, western Europe reported the highest level of support for community service and lowest in support for prison, while Africa was the opposite: lowest in support for community service and highest in prison support (Mayhew & van Kesteren, 2002). The New World (including the United States and Canada) was more closely divided in support for prison and community service (Mayhew & van Kesteren, 2002), reflecting the complexity present in this context (e.g., Cullen et al., 2000). Less development leads to more support for incarceration, perhaps due to lack of funding for alternatives, as seen in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Mayhew & von Kesteren, 2002).

A regional difference specific to the United States is the potential for southerners to hold different, namely more punitive, attitudes about punishment. On this topic, Borg (1997) found overall few differences in support for the death penalty across regions of the United States. She did note, though, that racial prejudice, religious fundamentalism, and conservatism were all affected by region, indicating a southern effect upon punishment attitudes through these other mechanisms (Borg, 1997). Therefore, it may be more a presence of other predictors rather than regional location itself that causes the general discussion of southerners as more punitive, leading to a caution regarding labeling all southerners punitive.

The relevance of regional differences is particularly relevant when considering the “Bible belt” region of the United States, which overlaps to some extent with the southern region (but is concentrated more specifically in the Southeast). Some question whether findings about the influence of religiosity upon punishment attitudes apply only to this region (Applegate, Cullen, Fisher, & Ven, 2000), an issue discussed in more detail next.

Influence of Religiosity and Moral Foundations

The United States is unique in the extent of continued importance of religious beliefs in comparison to other countries (Applegate et al., 2000). According to Cullen et al. (2000), the relationship between religion and punishment attitudes is complicated (see also Unnever & Cullen, 2006; Unnever, Cullen, & Applegate, 2005). Religiosity is often thought to be closely related to political conservatism and punitiveness (Applegate et al., 2000; Frost, 2010). For example, higher levels of religious fundamentalism are generally related to higher support for capital punishment, yet in contrast, stronger belief in the religious concept of forgiveness reduces punitiveness (Cullen et al., 2000). Similarly, King and Maruna (2009) found those who were more religious were less likely to be punitive, and within the context of Germany, Hanslmaier and Baier (2016) found Protestants and Catholics to be less punitive than nonreligious individuals and that church attendance decreased punitiveness.

Further adding to this complexity, Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate (2005) found the relationship between religion and punitiveness may be contingent upon differences among Christian denominations and how concepts such as image of God, compassion, religious attributions, and punishment fit into one’s faith. For example, Christian fundamentalists are more punitive than nonfundamentalists (Applegate et al., 2000; Grasmick, Davenport, Chamlin, & Bursik, 1992), evangelism is related to lower levels of support for the death penalty (Young, 1992), and belief in an angry, judgmental God increases punitiveness (Bader, Desmond, Carson Mencken, & Johnson, 2010). Yet these earlier studies should be considered in light of the finding by Wozniak and Lewis (2010) that the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and punitiveness were likely affected by measurement error.

A new line of research suggests that the relationship between religion, conservatism, and punitiveness is rooted in moral foundations. Silver and Silver (2017) found that religious and political conservatives were more likely to hold binding moral beliefs rather than individualizing moral beliefs. Binding moral foundations, including authority, loyalty, and purity, adhere people to cultural and social institutions whereas individualizing moral foundations, including care and fairness, emphasize concern for individual well-being and rights. Binding moral foundations were strongly and positively related to punitiveness and largely explained the relationship between conservatism and punitiveness.

Symbolic Influences on Punishment Attitudes

Symbolic influences of punitiveness are any status or concept that is socially constructed, whose emphasis leads to differences in punitiveness. Racial threat and metaphors are notable symbolic influences on punishment attitudes, which this section discusses.

Racial Threat

An important influence of punishment attitudes that has received more attention in recent years is racial threat, or animus. In a test of three competing models of punitiveness (escalating crime-distrust, moral decline, and racial animus), Unnever and Cullen (2010) found racial animus to be the strongest in predicting punitiveness. For example, feelings of ethnic group threat lead to greater likelihood of supporting the use of ethnic factors when sentencing offenders (Johnson, Stewart, Pickett, & Gertz, 2011). As another example of a finding in support of racial animus, Whites who report higher levels of racial threat are more punitive toward juveniles (Pickett & Chiricos, 2012). Related to racial or ethnic threat is economic threat, where primarily White men of lower income and educational levels who perceive their economic circumstances to be precarious in the near future are more punitive (Costelloe et al., 2009). Similarly, Cote-Lussier (2016) found those perceiving criminals as low-status individuals who are competing against society itself were more punitive. This is also intertwined with racial animus, as King and Wheelock (2007) found Whites who felt African Americans were economically threatening were decidedly more punitive.

These concepts all relate to the broader idea of social cohesion and threats individuals feel about those they perceive as different from themselves and as violating the cohesive nature of society. Costelloe, Chiricos, Burianek, Gertz, and Maier-Katkin (2002), in a comparison of the Czech Republic and Florida, found that negative feelings toward those “other” than oneself was the most important driver of punitiveness in the Czech Republic. They also suspect that this same mechanism may be in operation in Florida, although represented by the level of conservatism (Costelloe et al., 2002). Also, Drakulich (2012) found living in multiracial neighborhoods decreased perceptions of racial and ethnic minorities as criminals, as well as increased perceptions of safety and decreased fear of victimization (see also Quillian & Pager, 2001). This indicates a potential link to lowered punitiveness, as well.

Metaphors

Various metaphors used to describe crime and punishment can also exert a powerful influence on thinking about punishment (Duncan, 1996). The “War on Drugs” is a familiar example of the role of metaphor in framing the government response to drugs. Research by Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) shows that metaphors have large effects on how people think about punishment. Describing crime as a “wild beast preying on” a city or as a “plague infecting” a city strongly affected preferences for how best to respond to crime. Presented with the beast metaphor, participants were more likely to favor enforcement, isolation, and punishment. Presented with the disease metaphor, participants were more likely to favor prevention and social reform. The results held across several experimental conditions. Unexpectedly, metaphorical frames had a stronger effect on preferences for how best to respond to crime than political party affiliation or gender. Metaphorical frames shifted preferences for how to respond to crime by 18% to 22% whereas political affiliation and gender shifted preferences by 8% to 9%.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) argue that metaphors guide reasoning about crime and punishment by activating “frame-consistent knowledge structures.” Even subtle, one-word metaphorical frames can substantially shift attitudes about punishment by tapping into larger knowledge structures that organize internally coherent ways of making sense of complex information. These observations have critically important implications for how one studies and interprets research about public attitudes. Small changes in question wording and cultural differences in metaphorical meanings and knowledge structures may have large influences on results. Given the rich use of metaphor in criminal justice, this is a promising area of future research that may reveal new insights into how we think about punishment.

Individual Influences

Although individual characteristics are typically treated as control variables in this literature, gender and race are two identity characteristics hypothesized to shape beliefs about punishment. For example, Applegate, Cullen, and Fisher (2002) maintain women are less punitive than men, as they are less likely to support punishment and more supportive of treatment for offenders. Further, women are less supportive of the death penalty than men, across both general and specific measures (Whitehead & Blankenship, 2000). Gender differences also shape the relationship between other variables and attitudes about punishment. For instance, reliance on media for information about crime and justice topics led to lower levels of knowledge about punishment, with this effect stronger for women than men (Pickett, Gainey, Triplett, & Danner, 2015). Level of knowledge about crime and punishment shape attitudes held about punishment (see, e.g., Indermaur & Hough, 2002), so this finding is important both in general and due to the gender difference. Differences in punitiveness by gender are often attributed in part to other demographic differences, though, such as education, which, according to Spiranovich, Roberts, and Indermaur (2012), is among the most important predictor of punishment attitudes. Those with higher education are generally expected to be less punitive (Costelloe et al., 2009).

It is necessary to incorporate race within the discussion of gender differences, as women and Black people are less punitive than men and White people according to Frost (2010). Similar to the concept of economic threat discussed previously, White men who experience economic insecurity tend to be more punitive (Costelloe et al., 2009). Also, Unnever and Cullen (2007b) found stronger support for the death penalty among Whites than Blacks was partially explained by racist attitudes among Whites (see also Johnson, 2008). Further, this divide remained regardless of comparison on class, religious affiliation, and other relevant variables, indicating the pervasiveness of racial differences about punishment (Unnever & Cullen, 2007a). These views about punishment are also shaped in a general sense by the history of racial relations in the United States (Tonry, 2009). Alexander (2012) echoes this in the approach taken in her book, which explores how mass incarceration represents a perpetuation of treatment of Black people since times of slavery.

Among Black individuals, there is a lack of consistency in support or opposition to punitive policies, which Ramirez (2015) attributes to a conflict between perceiving these policies as decreasing crime but also of a discriminatory nature. Similarly, Johnson (2008) found Blacks were less supportive due to their perceptions of bias of the punitive policies, and Peffley and Hurwitz (2010) attributed the lower levels of punitiveness of Black individuals to their overall negative experiences with law enforcement and the justice system in general.

The Influence of Public Attitudes on Policy

This section of the article explores what implications the attitudes, formed by the various influences discussed previously, have upon policy. There is an extensive literature on the politics of punishment. Here, the article briefly focuses on studies of empirical mood, one small part of the politics of punishment field. This provides a look into what aggregate or group-level shifts in public opinion about punishment may lead to in terms of policy.

Broad Changes in the Public Mood

According to Matthews (2005), discovering the public is punitive, or blaming the get-tough era on rising populist punitive ideals, is inaccurate. There was never a time when the public wanted leniency in response to serious crime. Rather, the public has always been punitive—it is the researcher focus on this that leads to findings of rising punitiveness without considering that historically the public consistently demands punishment for crime (Matthews, 2005; Tonry, 2009; Zimring & Johnson, 2006). For this reason, it is important to situate the discussion of public attitudes about punishment within this relative stability of public mood but also to recall that punitiveness is complicated and opinions about punishment are “mushy” (Cullen et al., 2000). Thus recent work by Enns (2016) and his discussion of broad changes in the public mood are very critical to consider when looking at the state of the literature on attitudes about punishment. Aggregate changes in public mood, rather than individual opinions, are what matter in terms of policy effect; for instance, changes in levels of support for punitive policy and the responses of policymakers can largely account for the rise of mass incarceration (Enns, 2016). Aggregate opinions are stable when measured, so it is possible to determine when there is a nonnegligible shift (see also Ramirez, 2013); also, aggregate preferences across different policies also move together (Enns, 2016), an observation that is consistent with the concept of public policy mood (Ramirez, 2013; Stimson, 2018). For example, Enns states that in the case of criminal justice policies, aggregate opinion shifts were gradual along with social and economic changes in the context of the United States (see also Page & Shapiro, 1992).

Pickett (2019) comments on the implications of Enns’s (2016) work for criminology. Pickett points out criminal justice literature has depended too much on cross-sectional studies and focused too narrowly on nuance in differences between general and specific opinions and how the lack of public knowledge about crime and policy (sometimes referred to as information effects) leads to exaggerated demand for punishment. The result, Pickett argues, is that researchers have missed the proverbial forest due to exclusive focus on the trees and that scholars should follow Enns’s methodological example of studying public mood rather than individual policy preferences. Public policy mood is a multidimensional concept, with the key dimensions being liberalism and punitiveness (Pickett, 2019; Stimson, 2004). Regarding the punitiveness dimension, the only consistent predictor of aggregate shifts in punitive support is crime rates (Enns, 2016; Pickett, 2019).

This body of work helps make sense of divergent findings in previous studies. In particular, it is becoming clearer that increases in crime and concern about crime contribute to shifts in public mood, which in turn lead to shifts in punitive policy. However, victimization and fear of crime have an inconsistent relationship to individual attitudes about punishment. As reviewed earlier, more is known about how expressive motives shape individual beliefs about punishment.

Moral Panics

A specific example of a shift in the public mood is moral panics. The United States is unique in terms of the degree of its rising incarceration (Tonry, 1999). This is due in part to the distinct nature of American moralism (Tonry, 1999), with perceptions of moral erosion of society being a main driver of increasing support for punishment (Tyler & Boeckmann, 1997), as well as the government’s lack of insulation from moral panics (Tonry, 1999). Moral panics involve periods of time when public sensibilities towards crime, even when it is decreasing, are strong and thus more supportive of punitive policies (Tonry, 1999). Thus policies that in other times may seem morally reprehensible find widespread popular support (Tonry, 1998), such as lengthy prison terms or even life in prison for a nonviolent offense. Concern about the moral implications of deviant, criminal acts, for example, leads to support for the suspension of procedural protections (Boeckmann & Tyler, 1997). Carvalho and Chamberlen (2017) term this “hostile solidarity:” the idea that punishment is pleasing because it reinforces societal identity. Offenders essentially become symbolic stand-ins (King & Maruna, 2009), and the media plays an important role in perpetuating this perception of criminals as violators of the moral order (Green, 2009; Tonry, 1999). Despite this, the relationship between media and punitiveness is generally much more complex than this (Hirtenlehner, 2011).

The Symbolic Victim

Another example of a shift in public mood may be due to the framing of victims. One example of how symbolism plays a role in attitudes about punishment is the use of victims as symbols. There was a movement for the rights of victims that involved moral arguments pushing back against lack of government inclusion of victims of crime in the process of punishment (Barker, 2007). Depending on the level of civic engagement in the area of the protest, these calls led to more retribution or restorative justice, with lower engagement leading to more retribution (Barker, 2007). The movement portrayed victims as sympathetic (Garland, 2001), with offenders portrayed as heinous and unworthy of a second chance, mainly by the media (Frost, 2010). This represents the use of victims as symbols, which became equated with calls for punitive actions. This is despite individuals who are victims of crime not generally becoming more punitive (Costelloe et al., 2009; King & Maruna, 2009). The victim equates to society in a general sense, representing the threat of crime posed, which necessitates harsh punishment (Garland, 2001; Vaughan, 2002; see also the discussion of the culture of control).

Culture of Control and Governing Through Crime

A shift toward a culture of control also represents a public mood shift. The phenomenon of a culture of control, termed by Garland (2001), is a shift from rehabilitation to punitive, expressive punishment, with controlling crime to protect the public of the utmost importance. According to Garland, a culture of control developed in the form of a new emphasis on personal responsibility and passage of moralistic crime laws during the 1980s. Interestingly, perception about the level of crime is one of the most important determinants of attitudes about punishment (Spiranovich, Roberts, & Indermaur, 2012). Thus a rising influence of culture of control brought a focus on crime into the everyday lives of those who prior may not have reflected on crime very often, if at all. The middle class drove the shift in increasing punitiveness according to Garland (1990), as crime became an everyday reality for this group, particularly in terms of media attention and salience. Many blame this shift for rising support for incarceration over alternatives, as fear of crime increased (Cesaroni & Doob, 2003; Garland, 2001).

Culture of control additionally relates to aspects of trust in government, which are important when discussing attitudes about punishment as demonstrated earlier. Policies harsh on crime often promised they would completely resolve the “crime problem” (Garland, 2001; Simon, 2007), yet this is not feasible. Therefore, the perceived failure of policies to protect communities from crime under the culture of control led simultaneously to increasing public distrust of government in terms of its competence in dealing with crime (Hutton, 2005; Zimring & Johnson, 2006).

Governing through crime, according to Simon (2007), is a similar but distinct argument from Garland’s (2001) culture of control that applies to punishment in the United States. Governing through crime means crime becomes a defining problem for the government, and “often it is crime through which other problems are recognized, defined, and acted upon” (Simon, 2007, p. 14). It leads to an increase in punitiveness, since centralizing the crime itself makes it more salient and thus draws upon factors such as victims as symbols to enhance the penalties. Governing through crime has high social costs, including a rise in incarceration and loss of trust in government, as prosecutors wield unprecedented power (Simon, 2007). Yet Simon’s argument is based on the actions of lawmakers themselves and how they make policies with crime as central, and how this makes the system less democratic. Garland, in contrast, is making a broader sociological claim. Both of these contributions help explain the public mood and how larger shifts in it have taken place within the context of U.S. punishment policy.

Effect of Attitudes on Policy Outcomes

The United States’ public is more punitive when compared to other developed countries (Kugler, Funk, Braun, Gollwitzer, & Kay, 2013). Although this is well established (but see Roberts et al., 2003), the extent to which punitive attitudes lead to policy outcomes has been a subject of debate. For example, public opinion is often blamed for the “get tough” era of punishment within the United States (Beckett, 1999; Cullen et al., 2000; DiIulio, 1997; Frost, 2010). However, Zimring and Johnson (2006) assert that change in public attitudes did not cause the incarceration explosion after the 1970s (see also Tonry, 2009). There is disagreement about the direct influence of public opinion on the use of punishment. Further, the public’s opinion is much more nuanced than many, single-issue opinion polls indicate (Cullen et al., 2000). The relationship between attitudes and policy follows a complex path and is the focus of lively academic debate.

Debating the Effect of Attitudes

Beginning in the 1970s, scholars began hotly debating whether crime policy changes in response to attitudinal changes. In particular, there was disagreement about the strength and direction of the relationship between public opinion and policy (Frost, 2010; Roberts, 2012; Wood, 2009). Some posited that public opinion directly influences policy (e.g., Cullen, Clark, & Wozniak, 1985; Erikson, 1976), others that policy shapes opinion (e.g. Beckett, 1999), while still others found a reciprocal relationship between the policy and attitudes (e.g., Norrander, 2000). Even among studies that found public opinion influences policy change, the strength of the relationship observed was inconsistent (e.g. Roberts et al., 2003). As an example of a weak relationship, Page and Shapiro (1983) found that opinion shaped policy but merely to a greater extent than policy shapes opinion.

Of those early researchers who posited that opinion shapes policy, Erikson (1976) found that public opinion strongly correlated with capital punishment policies. Thus he concluded that opinion was in part affecting policy. In particular, he observed a tendency for the public to support the policy already in place. He also acknowledged, however, that it was possible to interpret the findings as evidence that policy shaped opinion (Erikson, 1976). Therefore, even within the same article, scholars debated the appropriate order of causation, asking which comes first: policy or support for the policy?

Questions about causal order (or what occurs first in time) differ from questions about a reciprocal relationship between policy and attitudes. Studies of the possible reciprocal relationship between opinion and policy consider the mutual relationship between the two. Stated simply, the two may cause each other. Of those studies finding a reciprocal relationship, Norrander (2000) explored whether the relationship between public opinion on the death penalty and death penalty policies is reciprocal. Norrander found opinion and policies intertwined over time. In particular, it was not possible to separate out the influence of current opinion on current policy due to the influence of past opinion on past policies and the influence of policies on past and present opinion (Norrander, 2000). Thus, two decades ago, her study posited that public opinion and punishment is reciprocal, making it difficult to conclude a change in policy is a direct result of a current change in opinion. Finally, some studies found no link existed from opinion to policy, essentially arguing that public opinion did not matter and was instead driven by the opinion of political and social elites (e.g., Beckett, 1999).

The debate about the nature of the relationship between opinions and punishment can also be conceptualized as a disagreement about what theoretical model is operating. Commonly explored models include democracy-at-work, penal populism, and elite manipulation (Frost, 2010). The first, democracy-at-work, suggests public fear of crime is driving punitive policies. In this model, attitudes are predicted to directly lead to punishment policy changes (Frost, 2006, 2010; Roberts et al., 2003). Democracy-at-work is a one-direction model, which assumes that policy and elites have no influence on public opinion (Frost, 2010). The second model, penal populism, is a variation of the democracy-at-work hypothesis. Penal populism posits those in power gain political capital by appealing to punitive public attitudes. According to this model, politicians support harsh policies for political gain, rather than simply representing the public’s wishes (Bottoms, 1995; Frost, 2010; Roberts et al., 2003; Roberts & Stalans, 2000). Roberts and colleagues describe penal populism as inevitably leading to punitive results in terms of policy. This is because populism involves an intentional avoidance of typical policymakers, appealing directly to the (irrational) desires of the public (Roberts et al., 2003). Thus a simplistic, punitive policy option is pushed rather than more rational evidence-based policy solutions (Roberts et al., 2003). Clear (1994) observed, for example, that punitive opinion and penal harm had no limiting upper boundary: whether crime was going up or going down, more punishment could also be justified under the assumption that more punishment always creates a greater good. The penal populism model is similar to democracy-at-work in that they are both bottom-up models, asserting that public opinion leads to policy change (Frost, 2010).

Earlier work claimed the rise in tough on crime policies of the 1990s resulted from the operation of democracy-at-work (Beckett, 1999; Cullen, Clark, & Wozniak, 1985; Scheingold, 1984). More recently, observers criticize the simplicity of democracy-at-work, claiming it fails to capture the complexity of the relationship between attitudes and punishment to the same extent as penal populism (Frost, 2010). Yet there are critiques of penal populism for failing to explain the rise in tough on crime sentiment, as the relative stability of public opinion precludes this overgeneralized explanation (Tonry, 2009). Thus there is a third model that suggests that political and social elites create or socially construct the punitive attitudes of the public. This view holds the opposite relationship from democracy-at-work, namely that policy and elite actions shape policy opinion. The elite model is also unidirectional but is a top-down model, from policy (or elite communications) to opinion (Beckett, 1999; Brown, 2011; Frost, 2010; Simon, 2007). Although earlier studies (e.g., Beckett, 1999) found some support for the elite manipulation hypothesis, more recent studies demonstrate a strong and important effect in the opposite direction: from opinion to policy (for an exception, see Ramirez [2013], who finds elite framing of crime plays a large role in shaping aggregate opinion shifts).

Recent Evidence Regarding Effect of Attitudes

Recently, Enns (2014) and Pickett (2019) offered new evidence demonstrating a strong direct effect of attitudes on policymaking and decision-making of criminal justice officials. These results are based on methodologies more commonly used in political science, which may account for the different conclusions. In a large review of existing studies, Burstein (2003), for example, found strong effects of public opinion on policy, that the impact increases with the salience of the issue, and that the results could not be explained by elite influence or the activities of political organizations. Notably, many of the early studies in criminal justice that found strong effects of opinion on punishment policy were conducted in the late 1980s and 1990s when public concern about crime was at a high point. Enns shows as well that change in public punitiveness resulted in higher incarceration rates (but see Zimring & Johnson, 2006). In addition, Pickett notes the responsiveness of public officials, including lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors, to trends in public attitudes (see also Enns, 2014; Roberts & Stalans, 2000). This conclusion is supported by Brace and Boyea (2008) who find a direct effect of public opinion on judicial decision-making, as well as an indirect effect of public opinion upon the composition of the judiciary.

In conclusion, it is reasonable to say that “public opinion plays an important role in criminal justice policy-making” (Roberts & Stalans, 2000, p. 6). The most recent evidence indicates that public attitudes about punishment have direct consequences in the form of policy. Yet, many scholars warn against embracing public opinion when making policy decisions due to fear this will lead to increasing punitiveness, ineffective policies, and even misinterpretation of community desires (Green, 2006; Roberts & de Keijser, 2014; Roberts et al., 2003; Zimring, 2007; Zimring & Hawkins, 2006; Zimring, Hawkins, & Kamin, 2001). For instance, some warn public opinions are often misinformed, as well as misinterpreted (Frost, 2010; Roberts & Hough, 2002; Roberts et al., 2003). Still other researchers, such as proponents of democratic theory (Barker, 2006, 2009; Dzur & Mirchandani, 2007; Green, 2006; Johnstone, 2000; Wood, 2009), view the influence of the public on punishment policy as positive. As the empirical evidence of a direct effect of public opinion on punishment becomes clearer, additional scholarship is needed to better understand the consequence of public opinion and political participation on the practice of criminal justice (Sundt et al., 2019).

Conclusion

Public opinion about punishment is both multifaceted and complex. Researchers must consider various strands of research about both the causes and effects of this type of opinion. This complexity makes public opinion about punishment a diverse area of study, with various angles needing further exploration even today. The field has made progress in identifying the instrumental, expressive, and symbolic causes of punitiveness, yet some areas remain unsettled. Further, understanding the nature of the effect of public opinion on punishment policy still has room for development, particularly given the practical relevance of this aspect. The field of study focusing on public opinion about punishment will likely continue to grow and develop in the coming years, adding valuable knowledge to current understandings.

Further Reading

Applegate, B. K., Cullen, F. T., Turner, M. G., & Sundt, J. L. (1996). Assessing public support for three-strikes-and-you’re-out: Global versus specific attitudes. Crime & Delinquency, 42(4), 517–534.Find this resource:

    Beckett, K. (1999). Making crime pay: Law and order in contemporary American politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

      Burstein, P. (2003). The impact of public opinion on public policy: A review and an agenda. Political Research Quarterly, 56(1), 29–40.Find this resource:

        Cullen, F. T., Fisher, B. S., & Applegate, B. K. (2000). Public opinion about punishment and corrections. Crime and Justice, 27, 1–79.Find this resource:

          Duncan, M. G. (1996). Romantic outlaws, beloved prisons: The unconscious meanings of crime and punishment. New York, NY: NYU Press.Find this resource:

            Frost, N. A. (2010). Beyond public opinion polls: Punitive public sentiment & criminal justice policy. Sociology Compass, 4(3), 156–168.Find this resource:

              Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                Johnstone, G. (2000). Penal policy making: Elitist, populist or participatory? Punishment & Society, 2(2), 161–180.Find this resource:

                  Kugler, M. B., Funk, F., Braun, J., Gollwitzer, M., & Kay, A. C. (2013). Differences in punitiveness across three cultures: A test of American exceptionalism in justice attitudes. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 103(4), 1071–1114.Find this resource:

                    Page, B. I., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1983). Effects of public opinion on policy. The American Political Science Review, 77(1), 175–190.Find this resource:

                      Pickett, J. T. (2019). Public opinion and criminal justice policy: Theory and research. Annual Review of Criminology, 2(1), 405–428.Find this resource:

                        Roberts, J. V., & Hough, J. M. (2002). Changing attitudes to punishment: Public opinion, crime and justice. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                          Simon, J. (2007). Governing through crime: How the War on Crime transformed American democracy and created a culture of fear. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                            Stimson, J. A. (2004). Tides of consent: How public opinion shapes American politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                              Sundt, J., Cullen, F. T., Thielo, A. J., & Jonson, C. L. (2015). Public willingness to downsize prisons: Implications from Oregon. Victims & Offenders, 10(4), 365–378.Find this resource:

                                Thielo, A. J., Cullen, F. T., Cohen, D. M., & Chouhy, C. (2016). Rehabilitation in a red state: Public support for correctional reform in Texas. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(1), 137–170.Find this resource:

                                  Tyler, T. R., & Boeckmann, R. J. (1997). Three strikes and you are out, but why? The psychology of public support for punishing rule breakers. Law & Society Review, 31(2), 237–266.Find this resource:

                                    Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2010). The social sources of Americans’ punitiveness: A test of three competing models. Criminology, 48(1), 99–129.Find this resource:

                                      Wood, J., & Gannon, T. (Eds.). (2009). Public opinion and criminal justice. Portland, OR: Willan.Find this resource:

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