We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting. These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.
In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system. As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.” The five priorities were:
- Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
- Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
- Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
- Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
- Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)
The especially high level of support for “making Wisconsin a safer place to live” was notable in light of the much smaller number of respondents (21.4%) who said that they or an immediate family member had ever been the victim of a serious crime. This is line with results from last July’s Poll, which indicated that more than 85% of Wisconsinites feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night. Still, making the state safer apparently remains a high priority for more than 90% of Wisconsin residents.
Respondents were separately asked how well the system was performing along five separate dimensions. Here are the percentages for each dimension who said the system was doing a “good” or “excellent” job:
- Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (21.5%)
- Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (34.0%)
- Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (34.0%)
- Identifying the most dangerous criminals and preventing them from committing new crimes (35.2%)
- Treating all people fairly, regardless of race (37.0%)
Put differently, for each of the five objectives, a majority of respondents said the system was only doing a “fair” or “poor” job.
The offender rehabilitation numbers were especially striking: almost nine times as many respondents said the system was doing a poor job (31.0%) as said the system was doing an excellent job (3.6%).
The system got its best marks for “treating all people fairly, regardless of race,” but even as to that, 27% of respondents said that the system was doing a poor job, while an additional 30% gave the system only a “fair.”
Precise national benchmarks are not available for these questions, but skepticism of the criminal-justice system does seem widespread. The Gallup Poll, for instance, recently asked Americans about how much confidence they have in sixteen different institutions. The criminal-justice system came in tenth place, behind public schools and banks. Only 23% of respondents said that they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the criminal-justice system.
Gallup asked separately about the police, who fared considerably better, placing third, with 53% expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence. This reflects a longstanding, well-documented international phenomenon: citizens have much higher levels of confidence in the police than in the courts or the prisons. See, e.g., Mike Hough & Julian V. Roberts, Public Opinion, Crime, and Criminal Justice, in The Oxford Handbook of Criminology 278, 292-93 (Mike Maguire et al. eds., 5th ed. 2012).
In the Law School Poll, the criminal-justice system was defined to include the police, as well as the court system and the prisons. It is possible that the criminal-justice evaluations in Wisconsin would have been even poorer had the police been disaggregated.
National surveys also echo the findings here on rehabilitation. The most detailed national survey on sentencing and corrections policy in the past decade was sponsored by the National Center for State Courts. Its findings included the following:
- 79% agreed that “given the right conditions, many offenders can turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens”
- 22% said that rehabilitation should be the top priority for dealing with crime, which was ahead of longer sentences (19%) and more police (20%); prevention had the highest support at 36%
- Only 32% rated prisons as “very successful” or even “somewhat successful” at rehabilitating offenders
This was the third July in a row that the Law School Poll has included questions on criminal-justice policy. In designing these questions and analyzing the results, I’ve appreciated the collaboration of Poll Director Charles Franklin and Professor Darren Wheelock of Marquette’s Social and Cultural Sciences Department. Darren and I have a forthcoming article on the results the first two entries in this criminal-justice series.
I’m excited about this year’s entry because we have for the first time asked about experience of criminal victimization, experience as a criminal defendant, and general racial attitudes. After some number crunching, we will be able to say whether and to what extent these variables correlate with perceptions of the criminal-justice system and policy preferences. It will be interesting, for instance, to get a sense of whether individuals who have personal experience with the system rate the system higher or lower than those whose knowledge of the system is mostly through the media. Racial attitudes will also be an important focus of our analysis. Much research (e.g., here) suggests that such attitudes play an important role in criminal-justice decisionmaking.
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