Vol. 13 No. 5 (May 2003)
CHANGING ATTITUDES TO PUNISHMENT: PUBLIC OPINION, CRIME AND JUSTICE. Edited by Julian V. Roberts and Mike Hough. Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing, 2002. 272 pp. $59.95 Hardcover. ISBN# 1843920034. $34.95 Paperback. ISBN# 1843920026.
Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University, email@example.com
It would seem that the links between public opinion and public policy in a democratic society should be clear. However, as the articles in CHANGING ATTITUDES TO PUNISHMENT illustrate, there are, in fact, many questions about that relationship. One might begin by inquiring how to measure public opinion. Are polling data reliable? What kinds of polls are most useful? Should the views of uninformed citizens be given equal weight with the views of those who are well informed? Which polls are more valid—those conducted by commercial firms or those done by academicians? One could also ask how public opinion should influence policy making. Should politicians simply respond to every shift in popular attitudes? Should they use or try to influence public opinion to support their views?
This book developed out of a London symposium devoted to a discussion of public attitudes toward the use of prison and the alternatives. It was funded as part of a program in the United Kingdom called Rethinking Crime and Punishment (RCP). Although the program has its headquarters in Britain and the studies were originally aimed at that audience, the issues discussed at the symposium and in the volume also reflect the perspectives and research of scholars and practitioners from the United States, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany. Their work clearly has implications for public policy in many democratic, industrialized countries.
As the title of RCP implies, the group intends to reconsider existing responses to criminal behavior and to look at a range of possibilities for punishing offenders. They begin with the hypothesis that public opinion, which is assumed to be highly punitive toward criminals, can be changed. They posit the premise that if citizens are better informed, they will be less punitive—or at least less enthusiastic—about prison as their favorite punishment. At present, a number of public opinion studies show that, across national lines, people express negative opinions toward the courts for being too lenient with offenders. Research also indicates that those who are the least well-informed are the most negative. From this starting point, the authors of this volume examine how better information about crime and sanctions might affect citizens’ views.
Polls have also revealed a general belief that some punishment of lawbreakers is necessary and, for most people, that punishment means prison. They tend to believe that punishment should be proportionate to the offense and that the best way of ensuring proportionality is by the length of a term behind bars. Nonetheless, the contributors to CHANGING ATTITUDES TO PUNISHMENT argue that both the general public and members of the judiciary are open to alternatives to incarceration. A closer examination of polling data reveals that both groups want sentences to accomplish more than simple incapacitation, they also want rehabilitation. Thus, “raw” public opinion numbers—e.g., the percentage of respondents who think the courts are too lenient—offer little valid normative guidance to policy makers.
The volume contains twelve articles, several of which are comparative studies of attitudes toward punishment. Three others focus on the United States, while the remainder examine how, based mostly on studies in Britain, attitudes can best be shaped.
Among the pieces with a comparative perspective, one by Julian Roberts looks at public opinion and community penalties. He summarizes attitudes toward community sanctions and finds that great numbers of citizens are totally unaware that such alternatives to prison, even probation, exist. Yet despite their unfamiliarity with such programs, respondents, including crime victims, expressed strong support for them, especially those with a compensatory element. Roberts further finds that when those polled were informed of a laundry list of community-based sanctions, their enthusiasm for prison sentences declined further. Approval of alternative punishments also correlates with the public’s sense that the offender must be monitored and accountable, and that the sanction should be designed to accomplish both punitive and compensatory goals. One could infer from Roberts’ article that public support of alternative sentences would rise if they view them not as “soft” compared to prison, but as tough in a different way.
Pat Mayhew and John van Kesteren use the International Crime Victims’ Survey to examine attitudes across 58 countries. Those sampled were presented with a case of residential burglary. The authors found a very weak relationship between support for imprisonment and the incidence of its use. In addition, their work revealed more backing for imprisonment in less developed countries where fewer alternatives existed. As did other studies in this book, Mayhew and van Kesteren did not discover a positive correlation between victimization and pro-prison attitudes. Those data call into question the common claim of politicians that they are representing the victims in their hard-line programs. Finally, the authors learned that in 23 of the 58 countries, particularly those in the west, more people favored community service than imprisonment.
An article by Helmut Kury, Joachim Obergfell-Fuchs, and Ursula Smartt compares public attitudes toward punishment in Eastern and Western Europe. On the one hand, the European Union has promoted the abolition of the death penalty. On the other hand, Central and Eastern European countries have markedly increased their prison populations, despite stable crime rates. In the latter nations, political turbulence and skepticism about government regimes may be a cause for this growth, but incarceration is also popular in England, Wales, and Germany. To some extent, the authors see public support for harsh punishment as part of a “culture where simplistic problem-solving rhetoric takes root,” a culture imported from the United States.
In the first article dealing with the United States, Loretta Stalans notes that the literature offers contradictory images of public attitudes—on the one hand, demanding long prison sentences and the death penalty, but at the same time, supporting rehabilitation and crime prevention programs. Her argument is that most research on public opinion has tapped only surface attitudes; however, we will only discover its “flexibility, diversity, and nuances” when researchers identify “inner attitudes.” This is best done not by asking a global question such as “Do you support the death penalty?” but by offering respondents detailed descriptions of criminal cases, by using focus groups, and through research that examines the process of attitude change. Stalans uses approaches from social psychology to suggest that opinion research should pay more attention to underlying attitudes, to their connection with core religious and political values, and to the functions the attitudes serve. Obviously it is cheaper and easier to try to gauge public beliefs by a quick and dirty survey with “yes” or “no” answers than to probe as deeply as Stalans suggests. Whether the most easily obtained results are worth very much is the question.
The chapter by Francis T. Cullen, et al., also focuses on the apparent conflict between the popularity of imprisonment and the enduring support for rehabilitation of offenders in the United States. Why, they ask, when policy elites and criminologists have attacked the rehabilitative ideal, do 86% of those they surveyed favor early intervention as a crime control strategy over the “prison option?” The authors offer three possible reasons: Americans are generally a religious people who believe in the possibility of redemption; they favor a utilitarian approach and effective rehabilitation can be useful by protecting society; and many in the United States concede that criminogenic conditions within families, neighborhoods, and economic circumstances contribute to deviant behavior. These authors argue that the American people are not merely vengeful, but instead prefer a correctional system that distinguishes those who are truly dangerous from offenders who can be rehabilitated and restored to the community. Programs that can be advanced as offering a chance at rehabilitation can, according to Cullen, et al., provide a real alternative to the “get tough” policies that have dominated the punishment debate for the last decade.
John Doble’s article continues the theme that the American public is not so punitive as often assumed. He finds, for example, that citizens are less likely than politicians to favor locking up offenders and throwing away the key. Instead, survey after survey reveal that people want simultaneously to punish and rehabilitate. They opt for a variety of non-carceral, alternative sentences—not just because they might be cheaper and relieve prison overcrowding, but because they are more likely to achieve the goals of the community. In effect, the public wants balanced solutions that focus on prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation, while also favoring a tough approach to violent and dangerous offenders. Doble argues that politicians will disregard this demand for a balanced agenda at their peril.
Finally, several articles look at how public opinion is molded and how it can be changed or moved in a direction to coincide with the volume’s purpose. Mike Hough and Allison Park describe the results of a deliberative poll where a group of participants was assembled, briefed by experts, and led through a series of discussions. Their attitudes were measured before and after the sessions. Although such polls offer a more thorough insight into complex sets of issues, they are expensive to conduct and difficult to replicate, and clearly not a practical substitute for the “snapshot” survey. Catriona Mirrlees-Black reported on a study in which participants were provided information about crime and punishment through either a seminar, video, or booklet. Although respondents found all the sources balanced and accurate, it appears doubtful that any of the methods had a substantial effect on changing attitudes. David Indemaur and Mike Hough offer the view that academic researchers, principally criminologists, can serve as “circuit breakers” in the process of public opinion formation. Scholars should be available to provide succinct and accurate information to journalists and others in the media. Indemaur and Hough suggest that information resource centers where the media could go for background data might serve as a source for reliable coverage of crime and punishment. It seems they are advocating criminological “think tanks” on the model of foreign policy or tax policy institutes. The authors also suggest a strategy of challenging the way news reports frame stories of crime. Exactly how a reframed story would make its way onto the evening news is not clear. Accurate information on crime and punishment, they argue, could also be distributed through the internet. They do not address how the computer user will be prepared to sort the accurate from the inaccurate among the myriad of web sources.
The majority of chapters in this volume are well-crafted and persuasive discussions of the need to rationalize the connections between public opinion and public policy in the field of criminal justice. Students in a research methods class would find book useful to become acquainted with multiple ways to approach an issue. Likewise, many scholars, especially those challenging the simple view that the support for retribution and punitive approaches is virtually unanimous, might make good use of the data gathered by the contributors.
Copyright 2003 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.
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