Public Opinion, Crime and Justice

Natasha A. Frost and Carlos E. Monteiro

in Criminology

ISBN: 9780195396607
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
Public Opinion, Crime and Justice

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With the emphasis placed on democratic values in contemporary society, much attention has been paid to the role of public opinion in the formation of public policy generally and criminal justice policy specifically. The punitive turn in criminal justice policy, epitomized by policies such as “three strikes” laws, truth-in-sentencing, and mandatory minimums, is often attributed in part to demand for harsher criminal justice responses from an increasingly punitive public. It has been argued that public opinion, known to be both largely uninformed and frequently misunderstood, both indirectly and directly affects policy. It is known, for example, that politicians and policymakers look to polls and other measures of public opinion to gauge the mood of the public or the popularity of proposed crime policy. In some states, public opinion sometimes literally drives criminal justice policy, such as when the public actually votes for criminal justice policies presented as ballot initiatives (California’s notorious three-strikes law, for example, was endorsed by the public through voter referenda). In other states the criminal justice policymaking process is largely insulated from public influence and opinion. Indeed, there are a number of competing theses about the nature of the relationship between the media, public opinion, and public policy. The media is certainly the source for most of the information the public processes about crime, and research has consistently found that the media, with its focus on stories that emphasize the most unusual and extreme (yet least common) types of crime, offers a decidedly distorted picture of the nature and extent of the crime problem. Much of what people think they know about crime is thus not particularly accurate. Members of the public then form opinions about criminal justice policy issues on this less-than-optimal understanding of crime. Misconceptions aside, public opinion data from a variety of sources offer policymakers a window into the views of their constituents. Some have argued that punitive criminal justice policy is simply evidence of “democracy at work,” with policymakers simply responding to the desires of their constituents. Others have argued that policymakers take advantage of, or exploit, public opinion to gain electoral advantage—pandering to an ill-informed public. Still more argue that policymakers actually use the media to manipulate (indeed manufacture) the very opinion that they then use to justify their popular, yet often ineffective, criminal justice policies.

Article.  12002 words. 

Subjects: Criminology and Criminal Justice ; Criminal Justice ; Criminology

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