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Monica M. Gerber

Why do people support the harsh punishment of criminal offenders? Understanding public punitiveness is relevant because punitive measures have been increasing worldwide since the year 2000, while public perceptions are an important factor driving penal policies. These punitive trends have taken place even though crime rates have generally not increased and even decreased in many parts of the world. Punitive attitudes—understood here as general support for the application of harsh sentences to criminal offenders—have been captured measuring people’s beliefs about specific sanctions and their intensity, the support for specific sentencing policies, and the evaluation of the penal system, among others. Research on the factors explaining public punitiveness can be broadly classified into two categories: utilitarian and retributive perspectives. According to the utilitarian perspective, punishment is a means to reduce future crime and control the behavior of offenders, usually through deterrence and incapacitation. From this perspective, punitiveness should be driven by concerns about high crime rates, fear of crime, and victimization experiences. From a retributive perspective, punishment serves a symbolic function by retaliating a wrong more than preventing future crimes. Two retributive and symbolic functions of punishment are discussed in the literature: On the one hand, it is argued that punishment helps clarify moral and normative boundaries; on the other hand, punishment can also help clarify status boundaries and maintain dominant groups’ power. Other factors found to influence people’s attitudes are political ideology (e.g., right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation), situational antecedents (e.g., the presence of a social threat or specific characteristics of victim and offender), and the media.