Elected officials at all levels of government believe that they need to be “tough on crime” to get elected to office and stay there. This belief is based on the perception that the citizens whom the politicians seek to represent uniformly demand a tough and punitive response to crime that usually entails a prison sentence. Acting on this belief, the elected officials have passed laws that have fueled the extraordinary and sustained growth of the prison population in the United States over the past 3 decades. As a result, this country outranks all other counties in both the rate of incarceration and the size of the prison population.
While these beliefs have been pervasive for some time, two recent reports on public opinion and punishment seem to cast significant doubt on the accuracy of this conventional political wisdom. Reports from the Pew Center on the States and the Death Penalty Information Center both paint a picture of an electorate with some surprising views. Both of these reports are based on national polls of citizens in the spring of 2010 and the Pew report also incorporated the results of a series of focus groups.
When taken together, these reports portray a public that is more moderate, nuanced and pragmatic than most politicians suggest that they are. The public is not one dimensional, uniformly punitive towards criminals. As was suggested by one of the pollsters engaged by Pew, the public is humane and can be forgiving. Citizens polled showed an awareness of and sensitivity to issues that are rarely discussed in the public political debates on punishment. For example:
• Citizens are concerned about the overall cost of corrections specifically, and in relation to other areas of government where funding is needed (education, health care, infrastructure).
• They believe that fewer low risk offenders should not be incarcerated, and there was support for reducing the terms of those low risk offenders currently behind bars. These offenders should receive services and treatment to help them make a successful adjustment to society.
• There is strong support for rehabilitation, ranking it second after protecting society as a reason for incarcerating offenders.
Concerning the death penalty, the respondents expressed concern about:
• Unfairness in imposition of the death penalty, especially racial disparities.
• The high cost of capital punishment.
• The impact on the victim's family of repeated court hearings and the lack of closure.
• The issue of innocence, for example the risk of executing someone who is innocent.
The primary concern of citizens is safety, for themselves and the community. They still support incarceration for violent offenders, but they want their justice systems to be “smart on crime”. Programs and services to prevent crime in the first place should be given at least as much priority as prisons. Citizens emphasize the need for holding offenders accountable for their behavior, for paying restitution and child support, and for working to develop the skills they need to live a law abiding and productive life.
I think it is also fair to say that the citizens want the justice system to be accountable as well, for being “smart on crime” in how the justice agencies use the authority and resources granted to them by their citizens.
While some readers might see the findings of these two surveys surprising, they should not. These results are consistent with more than two decades worth of polling on crime and punishment. Dozens of studies have portrayed the public to be pragmatic, reasonable and balanced in their views of punishment, supporting rehabilitation and treatment for offenders who need it. There is support for incarceration, but for dangerous and violent offenders, not for everyone. One reason that this portrayal of public attitudes is surprising is that most of the studies have been published in academic journals and policy reports that rarely find their way into the hands of elected officials and policy makers, no less the public.
This information comes to light at a critical time. States and counties are suffering the worst fiscal pressures in memory and are struggling with life and death decisions about budgets. In a number of states, courageous politicians are raising concerns (no doubt with concerns about the impact their political future) about the cost of corrections and the return on that investment. The consistent support of the public for a more moderate, less punitive and fundamentally pragmatic sentencing and correctional policy should help to redefine the debate, and provide elected officials with some support as they wrestle with these difficult and costly decisions.
William D. Burrell is an independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices. From 2003 to 2007, he was a member of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the Temple faculty, Bill served for nineteen years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system. Bill is chairman of the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and serves on APPA's Board of Directors. He has consulted, and developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county level.