Public opinion polls typically find a preference for tougher treatment of defendants in the criminal-justice system. However, few polls attempt to disaggregate types of crime. When laypeople are asked what they think should be done with “criminals,” their responses are likely based on the relatively unusual violent and sexual offenses that dominate media coverage of crime. However, punitive attitudes toward such offenses may not necessarily indicate that similar attitudes prevail more generally.
In order to develop a better understanding of the extent to which public attitudes differ based on crime type, I collaborated with Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department on a set of questions in the most recent Marquette Law School Poll. Rather than asking respondents about crime in general, we posed questions regarding violent crime and property crime. Our results were consistent with the expectation that members of the public see these two types of crime in a rather different light.
Most notably, we asked whether respondents agreed that “individuals who have been convicted of a violent [property] crime should normally be sentenced to prison, even if it is a first-time offense.” As to violent crime, a very large majority (69%) expressed some level of agreement with the statement (Q47). However, as to property crime, only 24% agreed (Q52).
Despite an apparent preference for incarceration in cases of violent crime, our respondents were not unrelentingly punitive in this regard. Only 38% agreed that “anyone who has been convicted of two or more violent crimes should have to spend the rest of his or her life in prison, with no exceptions” (Q48).
On the other hand, the relative lenience in attitudes toward property crime may have been limited to first-time offenders. A large majority (64%) agreed that “anyone who has been convicted of two or more property crimes should have to spend at least one year in prison, with no exceptions” (Q53).
Our results here might be compared with our findings from the July 2016 Marquette Law School Poll, for which we developed a set of questions regarding drug crime. Although the questions were not worded quite like the property and violent crime questions, we generally found greater support for treatment over prosecution with regard to all four drug types about which we inquired (marijuana, heroin, crack, and meth).
Findings of punitiveness in this and other polls should be interpreted with caution. Polls also tend to find high levels of support for rehabilitation and second chances if the questions are framed in the right ways. We have encountered plenty of evidence of this duality in public opinion in several iterations of the Marquette Law School Poll since 2012. Indeed, in the most recent Poll, we found that a large majority of respondents (66%) agreed that “if a prisoner serves two-thirds of his term, he should be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society” (Q34).
Also, it is not clear to what extent punitive attitudes regarding individuals who have been convicted of violent crimes are based on mistaken assumptions about their dangerousness. In fact, some recidivism research indicates that prisoners who were convicted of violent crimes are a little less likely to reoffend than those who were convicted of property or drug crimes.
Although we cannot determine the impact of beliefs about risk, we can try to understand more about other drivers of punitive attitudes by studying the relationship between these attitudes, various demographic variables, and the responses to other questions in the Poll about social values and political inclinations. That statistical analysis will be the next phase of this research. Some of our earlier work in this vein is reported here.
The most recent Marquette Law School Poll was conducted on July 11-15, 2018. The results are based on interviews of 800 registered Wisconsin voters. The margin of error is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Other technical details are here.
Darren and I are grateful for the collaboration of Poll Director Charles Franklin on this and our prior waves of criminal-justice questions.