Public Opinion and Crime Research Paper

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Like the economy, politics, or religion, crime is a regular topic of national public opinion surveys, and journalists and social commentators often remark on the public mood when it comes to issues like the death penalty, police use of force, or fear of crime. For their part, criminologists have become increasingly interested in how the general public perceives or feels about matters related to crime and punishment, partly in recognition that some social consequences of crime (particularly fear of crime) depend on public perceptions of crime, but also in acknowledgment that public opinion can influence law and public policy.

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Gathering data on public opinion about crime would seem to be an unobjectionable practice, particularly in a poll-obsessed culture like that of the United States. But there are serious and legitimate questions about the uses of public opinion data on crime, especially when those data are to be used to guide public policy. One of the very purposes of a criminal justice system is to protect accused persons from the coarser manifestations of public opinion (rumor, vigilantism, lynchings), and few scholars would claim that public opinion on matters of criminal justice is always informed opinion. To some social and legal analysts, the notion of linking criminal justice policy (e.g., sentencing or parole policy) to the shifting winds of public opinion is abhorrent to the very ideas of legality, precedent, and dispassionate justice.

At the same time, however, democratic societies like the United States grant a pivotal role to public opinion in many domains of life, and the thought of relinquishing social policy decisions to ‘‘experts’’ is repugnant to many citizens. Although legislators and judicial officials ought not be rigidly bound by public opinion, there are matters in which it may be legitimately consulted (for example, issues of expense or public safety). When it comes to understanding the causes and consequences of crime, many phenomena of deep interest to criminologists (e.g, the perceived certainty of punishment, the perceived seriousness of crimes, the perceived risk of victimization) can only be measured through surveys of the general public because they are intrinsically subjective phenomena. And although critics are sometimes quick to dismiss public opinion on crime as coarse and unreflective, public opinion on some criminal justice issues is surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced (Warr, 1995).

However these competing positions may settle out, there remains the fact that a great deal of survey data concerning crime and punishment has accumulated in recent decades, and public opinion continues to figure heavily in political races and public policy. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to review some of the principal findings of survey research on crime and punishment.

Fear of Crime

Fear of crime is not a perception or opinion about crime, but rather an emotion, a feeling of apprehension or dread caused by an awareness or expectation of danger. Public fear of crime in the United States has been a topic of enormous interest to criminologists since the 1960s, in large part because of the ability of fear to significantly alter behavior (where people go, when they go, how they go, and who they go with, for example) and to regulate or disrupt social life (Skogan and Maxfield; Skogan; Warr, 1994; Ferraro). Although it is difficult to quantify and easy to exaggerate, some social observers see in widespread fear of crime a general decline in quality of life in the United States, one that manifests itself in restrictions on individual freedom, a loss of community, deserted and decayed inner cities, and numerous intangible casualties to fear (ranging from loss of trust among strangers to restricted outdoor play for children).

To some, the preoccupation of criminologists with fear of crime might seem to miss the true issue, which is not fear of crime, but crime itself. That point of view, however, overlooks certain crucial facts. One of those is that the number of fearful individuals in our society during any particular period greatly exceeds the number of persons who will actually become victims of crime, often by orders of magnitude. People can be victims of fear, in other words, even when they are not actually victims of crime. Another important consideration is that public fear of crime is not necessarily proportional to objective risk. In fact, there is reason to believe that people often exaggerate the risk of rare, but serious, crimes (Warr, 2000). In American culture, where the everyday sensibilities of citizens are often acutely alert to danger, fear of crime merits attention as an object of study in its own right.

Fear of crime is ordinarily measured through social surveys, and the survey question most frequently used to measure fear of crime in the United States is this: ‘‘Is there any area near where you live—that is, within a mile—where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?’’ Since 1965, the question has been routinely included in surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization and (with minor wording differences) by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Following a modest rise in the late 1960s, the percentage of respondents answering ‘‘yes’’ to the question has remained relatively constant since that time, varying over a range of only about 10 percent (from approximately 40 to 50 percent). This relative invariance over time may surprise those who are accustomed to frequent media claims about ‘‘skyrocketing’’ fear in the United States.

The survey question used in the Gallup/ NORC surveys is useful as a general barometer of fear in the United States, but it obscures the fact that different crimes are feared to very different degrees. One of the most enduring but mistaken assumptions about fear of crime is that the general public is most afraid of violent crimes, especially homicide. Homicide, however, is not among the most highly feared crimes in the United States, and the most feared crime— residential burglary when no one is home—is not even a violent crime. Why this seemingly strange state of affairs? The reason is that fear is not simply determined by the perceived seriousness of a crime, but by the interaction of perceived seriousness and perceived risk. To generate strong fear, an offense must be perceived to be both serious and likely. Americans do not greatly fear homicide because they regard it as a comparatively low-risk event, and they reserve their concern for a crime that is less serious (though hardly trivial) but far more likely—residential burglary (Warr and Stafford, 1983; Warr, 1994, 1995).

The Death Penalty

No area of public opinion galvanizes scholars and social scientists more than the death penalty, not only because of its moral and legal complexity and its life-and-death nature, but also because public opinion on the death penalty has exhibited one of the most dramatic shifts in public sentiment ever recorded. Two Gallup surveys from the 1930s (see Warr, 1995, for question wordings) attest to substantial public support for capital punishment in that decade (61 percent approval in 1936 and 65 percent in 1937), a level of support that was still evident in the early 1950s (68 percent in 1953). By the late 1950s, however, public support for the death penalty showed unmistakable signs of erosion, and by the middle of the following decade it had reached its lowest point in modern history (42 percent in 1966), having dropped some 26 percentage points from 1953. During the next two decades, however, public support for the death penalty increased in an unrelenting if uneven progression, and remained above 70 percent (and as high as 80 percent) from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.

Many explanations for this turnabout have been suggested (cf. Ellsworth and Gross). Some believe that large increases in crime rates during the 1960s renewed public demand for the death penalty. Others argue that the topic of crime and punishment became politicized for the first time in the 1968 presidential election. Whatever the reasons may be, there is extraordinary social consensus about the death penalty in the United States today. To be sure, that consensus is not monolithic—support for the death penalty is weaker among African Americans and among young people—but it remains unsurpassed in the history of survey research on capital punishment.

The Police

Most Americans, it is fair to say, have reason to be ambivalent toward the police. On the one hand, the police contribute to crime prevention and offer the hope of protection and justice to victims of crime. On the other hand, they are symbols of authority (to some, oppressive authority) in our society. The most common contacts between the public and the police—traffic violations—are not often remembered as pleasant events by citizens. It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to find that the public generally holds the police in very high regard. In repeated Gallup surveys, substantial majorities (70 percent in 1965, 77 percent in 1967, 60 percent in 1991) report that they have ‘‘a great deal’’ of respect for the police in their area. In 1994, 46 percent of respondents to a Gallup survey rated the honesty and ethical standards of the police as ‘‘very high’’ or ‘‘high,’’ a rating that places police in the company of medical doctors and college teachers. And a national survey conducted by the National Victim Center revealed that the public rates the performance of the police above that of prosecutors, judges, prisons, and parole boards (Warr, 1995). Ultimately, it appears that any ambivalence that citizens feel toward the police is largely overcome by the fact that the police are the most visible element in our society’s effort to insure public safety, and are the first persons to whom citizens often turn when they fall victim to crime.


One of the most intriguing areas of public opinion concerns public preferences with regard to criminal sentencing. Research in this area is unusually consistent in its findings and implications. First, having themselves invented the prison as a means for punishing criminals, Americans today regard imprisonment as the appropriate form of punishment for nearly all crimes, and other options (fines, restitution) are ordinarily viewed as supplements rather than substitutes for imprisonment. Second, the prison sentences preferred by citizens are, on average, considerably longer than those actually served by offenders in the United States. This preference for long sentences is quite evident in social surveys showing that enormous majorities of Americans (more than 80 percent in nearly every year since 1976) think that the courts in their area do not deal ‘‘harshly enough’’ with criminals. Still another finding from research is that the prison sentences preferred by the general public for different crimes are directly proportional to the perceived seriousness of those crimes, meaning that Americans endorse the notion that ‘‘the punishment must fit the crime’’ (Warr, 1994, 1995).

It is difficult to read into these finding anything other than a certain anger and punitiveness toward criminals on the part of the American public, combined with a very practical approach to crime control that emphasizes incarceration. At the same time, however, there is some evidence that Americans combine their insistence on strict punishment with a genuine concern for rehabilitation (e.g., Warr and Stafford, 1984), presumably on the knowledge that most offenders will eventually be released again into society. It is perhaps fair to say, then, that citizens of this country often approach matters of criminal justice with a tough, but not necessarily unthinking or hard-hearted, frame of mind.

The Seriousness of Crimes

When it comes to crime, few aspects of public opinion have been more thoroughly investigated than public beliefs about the seriousness of crimes. At first glance, the seriousness of a crime might seem to be an objective property of a crime (just as weight or mass are objective properties of an object), but seriousness is a perceptual or subjective property of crimes, one that can vary considerably across individuals, cultures, and over time. One need only consider behaviors like smoking marijuana or homosexual conduct to appreciate the range of public opinion when it comes to seriousness. Even when the seriousness of a crime can be quantified through some objective metric (e.g., the dollar value of stolen property), it does not necessarily correspond in any simple way with the perceived seriousness of the crime. For example, is an armed robbery that nets one hundred dollars twenty times as serious as one that nets five dollars? Few would say so (e.g., Wolfgang et al.).

Judgments about the seriousness of crimes seem to be critical to the way that most individuals think about crime, because seriousness is strongly related to many other public perceptions, judgments, and reactions, including beliefs about appropriate penalties for different crimes, perceptions of the frequencies of crimes, fear of crime, judgments concerning the likelihood of arrest, and other crime-related phenomena. Several large-scale surveys have been conducted in recent decades to precisely measure public opinion about the seriousness of crimes, and the results are both predictable and surprising (see Wolfgang et al.; Warr, 1994). In general, crimes against persons are perceived to be the most serious offenses, although some nonviolent acts (e.g., selling heroin) fall within the same seriousness range as violent crimes. The perceived seriousness of an offense can vary greatly depending on who the victim and offender are. Violence between strangers, for example, is perceived to be more serious than violence between intimates, even when the events are otherwise comparable. The physical vulnerability of the victim also affects seriousness judgments; striking an elderly woman is not the same as striking a young man. In general, there is a good deal of agreement about the seriousness of crimes within our society, although some behaviors (e.g., certain forms of drug use) remain contentious issues.

Some evidence indicates that individuals often differentiate between two elements of seriousness, the harmfulness of an act (i.e., the damage it inflicts) and its wrongfulness (moral gravity). Some offenses are perceived to be more wrong than they are harmful (e.g., stealing fifteen dollars from a close friend, shoplifting a pair of socks from a store), whereas others (disturbing the neighborhood with noisy behavior, killing a pedestrian while speeding) are perceived to be more harmful than they are wrong (Warr, 1989). In everyday life, it is clear that the seriousness attached to some acts (e.g., burning the flag or displaying the Swastika) has much less to do with their objective harmfulness than with the fact that they violate powerful social taboos.

Sources of Information on Crime

Some facets of public opinion pertain to matters of preference or moral judgment (e.g., beliefs about appropriate penalties for crimes) and cannot be properly characterized as ‘‘right’’ or ‘‘wrong,’’ accurate or inaccurate. In other instances, however, public opinion bears on objective characteristics of crime: Is crime increasing? Is my city a safe place? How many burglaries occurred last year? In such cases public perceptions can be compared with objective data to assess the accuracy of those perceptions. Comparisons of this sort are of particular interest to some criminologists, who worry that the general public may be misinformed about crime and suffer needless fear, or may be insufficiently afraid of what are in fact substantial risks (see Warr, 2000).

Where does the general public get its information about objective characteristics of crime, such as the risk of victimization, the geography of crime in their city, or the relative frequencies of different crimes? When the public is asked where they obtain most of their information about crime, the resounding answer is the mass media, especially news coverage of crime. Graber, for example, reported that 95 percent of respondents in her survey identified the media as their primary source of information on crime, although 38 percent cited other sources as well (conversations or, more rarely, personal experience). Skogan and Maxfield found that more than three-quarters of respondents in the three cities they surveyed reported watching or reading a crime story on the previous day (44 percent had read a newspaper crime story, 45 percent had watched a crime story on television, and 24 percent had done both). The mass media are thus a very powerful mechanism for amplifying criminal events. Information initially known only to a few can within hours become known to many thousands or millions.

If the public relies on the mass media for information about crime, how do the media depict crime? Numerous forms of distortion in news coverage of crime have been identified and documented, distortions that tend to exaggerate the frequency and the seriousness of crimes. In the real world, for example, crimes occur in inverse proportion to their seriousness; the more serious a crime, the less often it occurs. Thus, petty thefts occur by the millions, robberies by the hundreds of thousands, and homicides by the thousands. In choosing stories for print or broadcast, the primary selection criterion used by the news media is ‘‘newsworthiness,’’ and a key element of newsworthiness is seriousness—the more serious a crime, the more likely it is to be reported. By using seriousness as a criterion, however, the media are most likely to report precisely those crimes that are least likely to occur to individuals (Warr, 1994).

This ‘‘mirror image’’ of crime depicted in the media results in an extraordinary emphasis on violent crime. Investigators in one study (Skogan and Maxfield) reported that homicides and attempted homicides amounted to one-half of all newspaper crime stories in the cities they examined, even though homicides are only a minute fraction of all crimes in our society. Furthermore, they found, the number of homicide stories reported in city newspapers did not closely match the actual homicide rates in those cities, suggesting that the amount of space devoted to crime has more to do with editors’ decisions about reporting crime news than with the true crime rate itself.

News coverage of crime has been criticized on other grounds as well, including the practice of using crime news as ‘‘filler’’ when other news is slow, the use of crime news to attract larger audiences (‘‘If it bleeds, it leads’’), and an unfortunate tendency to report crime trends using numbers rather than rates, thereby ignoring changes in population. With regard to the latter issue, observe that it is entirely possible for the number of crimes in a city to increase over time even as the rate of crime decreases. All that is required is that the population grow at a faster rate than crime itself. This sort of elementary statistical reasoning often seems to be lost on crime reporters.

The fact that the media present a distorted image of crime is no guarantee, of course, that the public believes or heeds what is sees, hears, and reads. Measuring the impact of media coverage on public opinion is a daunting task because of the difficulty of isolating media messages on crime from other sources of information (conversations with family and neighbors, personal experience, rumor). Still, it is difficult to believe that the media have little or no effect on public perceptions when the public itself cites the media as their primary source of information on crime and spends so much time attuned to the media. In addition, what seems to be a common error on the part of the public—a tendency to exaggerate rare risks and underestimate common ones— precisely corresponds with the way those risks are reported in the mass media (Warr, 2000).


Understanding public opinion on crime is of enormous importance to criminology. Some properties of criminal behavior (e.g., the perceived seriousness of crimes) are virtually meaningless without reference to public opinion, and some of the consequences of crime (e.g., public fear of crime) depend on public perceptions of the risk of victimization. It is not surprising, therefore, that criminologists have come to increasingly focus their attention on public opinion regarding crime and punishment.

That attention, unfortunately, is shared by people whose intentions are less noble. One of the more glaring and disappointing features of contemporary American politics is the tendency of political candidates to exploit and capitalize on public fear and anger over crime in an effort to win votes. Crime, in fact, has figured as a major issue in every presidential election since Richard Nixon took office, and may have been the pivotal issue in one or more presidential elections (recall the Willie Horton commercials in the Bush/ Dukakis contest). At a more local level, crime regularly dominates political campaigns from the mayor’s to the governor’s office. The point is not that crime is not a legitimate subject of public discourse, but rather that efforts to garner votes using the issue of crime frequently transform what is an intrinsically complex subject matter into an object of sloganeering, bumper stickers, and specious efforts to demonstrate who is more ‘‘tough on crime.’’ Rather than stimulate discussion, the transformation of crime into a political issue has acted to discourage sensible and reasoned public debate on critical issues of crime and punishment. The result, too often, has been policies that possess superficial appeal but fail to address the real problems of crime and justice.


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