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Public opinion and criminal justice reform

How can public opinion research help achieve badly needed criminal justice reforms? Unfortunately, public opinion has frequently been used in ways that help construct barriers to reform. Understanding the reasons—such as sources of public opinion about crime and justice, the ...

Published onDec 17, 2022
Public opinion and criminal justice reform
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 Abstract

How can public opinion research help achieve badly needed criminal justice reforms? Unfortunately, public opinion has frequently been used in ways that help construct barriers to reform. Understanding the reasons—such as sources of public opinion about crime and justice, the popularity of punitiveness and reform, and the way political actors interpret opinion—for this is important. But there is also promise in public opinion research for achieving a more just system, and public opinion research can also be a tool in elevating the voices of the structurally marginalized voices, as well as those most impact by crime and justice processes. Doing so requires a commitment to involving diverse voices inside and outside the academy, as well as a thoughtful and mutually beneficial integration of theory and public opinion research.

There are large-scale problems with the U.S. criminal justice system. Innocent people are regularly imprisoned and put to death (Gould and Leo 2010; Medwed 2017; Poveda 2001). The US has among the highest incarceration rates on the planet (Gramlich 2021), which has devastating social consequences (Clear and Frost 2015; Miller 2021). Police officers too frequently disrespect, mistreat, harm, and even kill citizens (e.g. Langton and Durose 2013; Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath 2021; Voigt et al. 2017). Intersecting each of these and many other issues with the criminal justice system are racial inequalities and injustices: Black Americans in particular are disproportionately likely to be exposed to the most toxic aspects of the justice system (e.g. Gelman, Fagan, and Kiss 2007; Mauer 2011; Nix et al. 2017).

Substantial structural reform is urgently needed. Black Lives Matter—a rallying cry conceived in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for Trayvon Martin’s death (Garza 2016), and popularized after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (Boyles 2019; Cobbina 2019), has grown into arguably the largest social movement in US history while bringing direct attention to and support for meaningful criminal justice reform (Buchanan, Bui, and Patel 2020). And yet, the enactment of reforms that would substantially reduce the inequalities and harms of the system has proved elusive.

In the midst of this popular movement, and amid seeming shifts in public opinion, it is worth asking how public opinion matters to the prospect of criminal justice reform. Specifically, could public opinion be leveraged in ways that help serve and inform reform efforts and policies? There is good news and bad news. And to be totally transparent: the bad news is really quite bad. To understand the potential promise of public opinion for making our justice system more just, we first must understand the ways that public opinion can serve as a barrier to meaningful reform. Specifically, we need to ask where this public opinion comes from, how popular punitive approaches and reform, respectively are, and the problems of interpreting public opinion. But these problems point to the promise of better public opinion work: the potential to elevate voices, to reframe questions, and to develop more robust and nuanced understandings of how the public thinks.

THE BAD NEWS: PUBLIC OPINION AS A BARRIER TO REFORM

To understand why public opinion can be a barrier to—rather than a tool for—reform, it is useful to better understand some basic dimension of public opinion on crime and justice. First, where does it come from?  How do people come to opinions about crime and the justice system? Second, how popular are punitive approaches to crime?  And how popular are reforms?  Finally, how does the public, and—most importantly for reform—political actors interpret this public opinion?

Where does public opinion about crime come from?

Perceptions of crime and justice are far from perfectly related to the realities of crime and justice. Fear of crime is some combination of the perceived risk and perceived seriousness of a victimization occurring (Warr 1987; Warr and Stafford 1983), though one’s risk of victimization can be hard to estimate and the perceived seriousness may not be based on a uniformly weighted set of potential consequences. Thus, public opinion tends to focus on serious but infrequent crimes like homicides over much more common property crimes. People also are more likely to fear victimization by strangers rather than acquaintances, despite the prevalence of the latter over the former (Baumer 1978; K. M. Drakulich 2015; Leverentz 2012; Pain 1997). There are systematic errors in what areas people perceive to be most dangerous (Drakulich 2012; Quillian and Pager 2001). More generally, the public pays more attention to “street” than “suite” crimes (Hagan 2010). Public opinions about crime policy have similarly, and famously, been described as “mushy” (Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate 2000): people support seemingly contradictory policies, show important gaps in knowledge, and can shift opinions based on information or framing.

Keeping those important caveats in mind, there is some evidence that shifts in perceptions of violent crimes, and in the ‘punitive mood’—an aggregation of opinions on different policies—are related to changes in some of the most commonly reported types of crime (Enns 2016; Nicholson-Crotty, Peterson, and Ramirez 2009; Pickett 2019; Ramirez 2013b). There is evidence connecting violent crimes like homicide with support for the most serious justice system punishment: the death penalty (Anderson, Lytle, and Schwadel 2017; Baumgartner, De Boef, and Boydstun 2008; Jacobs and Kent 2007; Miller 2016; Pickett 2019). On the other side, the Black Lives Matter movement and substantial public attention to issues in the justice system do appear to have influenced public awareness of these issues, though not evenly across race (Hayward 2020; Jones 2020; Phelps, Robertson, and Powell 2021). In this sense, some portion of the changes in public opinion about crime and in support of justice solutions appears reasonable. And pragmatically, the public appears to simultaneously support both punitive and non-punitive approaches to addressing crime (Cullen et al. 2000; Unnever et al. 2010; Vuk et al. 2020), though some of this may be a methodological artifact of acquiescence (Pickett and Baker 2014), and appears to depend on the emotional response to the potential for crime victimization (Drakulich and Baranauskas 2021).

These perceptions of crime and justice, however, are necessarily ‘mediated’: most people report the media is their primary source of information about crime (Baranauskas and Drakulich 2018; Roberts et al. 2003; Surette 2015). In fact, it travels through two lenses: the media relies on the police and other criminal justice institutions for their information about crime (e.g. Beckett 2000). This is not to say no signal gets through the noise, but criminal justice agencies have an obvious and direct interest in public opinion about crime and justice issues and employ public relations departments and spokespeople to help shape messaging—take, as one prominent recent example, the contrast between initial police statements on George Floyd’s murder relative to what citizen observers captured on video (Bump 2021). And journalists face their own instrumental, organizational, normative, and political pressures in choosing what to cover and how to cover it.

This brings us to the second factor in understanding where this public opinion comes from: they are at least in part social and political constructions, the target or goal of framing efforts by political and social movement actors (Baranauskas and Drakulich 2018; Beckett and Sasson 2004; Benford and Snow 2000; Berger and Luckmann 1990; Chermak and Weiss 2005; Ericson 1989; Kasinsky 1995; Rafter 1990; Ramirez 2013b). The fascination with surveys and presumed importance of public opinion is a relatively recent phenomenon, one which some have argued has played a role in shaping ‘mass society,’ giving birth to the idea of a common or average American (Igo 2008). But this is of course a social construction: equally weighted random samples ignore a social structure in which not all voices count equally and serve to hide the tensions and diverse meanings and interpretations these opinions reflect (Blumer 1948; Bourdieu 1979; Drakulich and Kirk 2016).

So, while changes in the public’s punitive mood may be connected to changes in crime, that doesn’t wholly explain why the two would be connected, without understanding the successful efforts by different groups, with their own goals, to convince some portions of the public that punitive responses by existing criminal justices institutions are the primary—if not sole—effective responses to the problem of crime (Balto 2020; Beckett and Sasson 2004; Campbell 2015; Hinton 2016; Lepore 2020; Messenger 2021; Tonry 2011; Vitale 2021). Additionally, while aggregating policy moods across questions and then people can help sort the signal from the noise when looking at shifts in public opinion (Pickett 2019), examining that noise cross-sectionally reveals different and more problematic signals. First, the argument for examining policy moods is rooted in part in the notion that most people have low political knowledge but are compliant and answer survey questions regardless (Berinsky 2017). This ‘mushiness’ (Cullen et al. 2000) matters, especially when reform depends on the passage of specific policy changes.

Second, people’s mistaken views about crime and justice are not purely random, as cross-sectional research make evident. For instance, people tend to overestimate the threat of disorder and crime particularly in neighborhoods with greater numbers of Black Americans (Drakulich 2012, 2013; Pickett et al. 2012a, 2012b; Quillian and Pager 2001, 2010; Sampson 2009; Sampson and Raudenbush 2004). Also, as discussed further below, racial ideologies and racist attitudes are among the most important and stable predictors of views and crime and justice cross-sectionally.

This raises the third factor in understanding where public opinion about crime and justice issues come from: it is fundamentally racialized. As described above, public opinion is shaped by the racial composition of the places the public finds itself—even information about crime gained through the media is filtered through this lens (Baranauskas and Drakulich 2018). There is significant racial stratification in views of the justice system, with White Americans most supportive of the current system and of punitive approaches, while Black Americans—disproportionately exposed to the harms and injustices of the system—hold more critical views (e.g. Anderson 2014; Bobo and Johnson 2004; Cooper et al. 2021; Drakulich et al. Accepted; Drakulich, Rodriguez‐Whitney, and Robles 2022; Johnson 2008; Unnever and Cullen 2007).

Most strikingly, racism is a persistent predictor of views of crime and justice. Perceptions of crime are shaped by crime stereotypes (particularly in places where the targets of those stereotypes live) and implicit racial biases (e.g. Drakulich 2012; K. Drakulich 2015a; Drakulich and Siller 2015; Lee and Ulmer 2000; Merry 1986; St. John and Heald-Moore 1996). Support for punitive policies is firmly rooted in racist ideologies, including modern racism and implicit racial biases (e.g. Bobo and Johnson 2004; K. Drakulich 2015b; Johnson 2008; Unnever and Cullen 2010). This phenomenon is far from new, but the connection between racial ideologies and punitive views may be growing in recent years, both because of racist support but also anti-racist opposition. As one example, Table 1 presents simple correlations between racial resentment and support for the death penalty by year from the American National Elections time series study (American National Election Studies 2021).[i] The two are consistently positively related as far back as the late 1980s but are particularly strongly related in the Black Lives Matter era. Racial ideologies also shape how the public views the police (Johnson and Kuhns 2009; Matsueda and Drakulich 2009; Peffley and Hurwitz 1985; Wozniak 2016), particularly in the Black Lives Matter era (Carter, Corra, and Jenks 2016; Drakulich et al. 2022). In fact, racism appears to explain some of the overall racial stratification in these views (Drakulich et al. Accepted, 2022; Johnson 2008; Unnever and Cullen 2007).

Table 1. Correlations between racial resentment and support for the death penalty by year

Year

estimate

N

1988

.29

1501

1990

.24

885

1992

.27

2011

1994

.25

1620

2000

.26

1437

2004

.32

1007

2008

.35

1902

2012

.33

5313

2016

.38

3547

2020

.44

7223

Note: all correlations are significant at p<.001.

From the perspective of evidence-based policy reform, it is concerning that public opinion on these issues appears susceptible to the influence of racial framings of social and political issues. Political actors attempt to frame crime and justice issues in ways that support their political goals (Benford and Snow 2000), including creating interpretive packages of related frames on racial inequalities and injustices that suggest that Black Americans deserve disproportionate exposure to the criminal justice system and which resonate with people with implicit and explicit biases against Black Americans (K. Drakulich 2015a, 2015b). Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, some political actors sought to reframe civil rights protests against legal injustices as criminal and disorderly, signaling the origins of the ‘tough on crime’ frame (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Tonry 2011; Weaver 2007). These framings can work: emphasizing violent or criminal behavior among protesters can erode support for the protests (Edwards and Arnon 2021; Kilgo and Mourão 2021). Even framings intended to support civil rights by highlighting injustices or police violence toward protesters may backfire or promote a backlash specifically among those concerned about threats to white privilege (Drakulich and Denver 2022). This may help explain a punitive bias in which very high levels of support are required for non-punitive policies to be adopted (Lax and Phillips 2012; Pickett 2019).

Finally, and also relatedly, public opinion about crime and justice is shaped by political forces, particularly in times characterized by heightened political polarization and partisanship. Crime and justice issues have long been viewed by the public through a partisan lens, even in eras of less polarization overall. As one illustration, Figure 1 draws on a series of monthly interviews with a panel of American respondents before and after the 2008 presidential election (American National Election Studies 2009).[ii] Voters were asked whether crime was higher or lower than it had been in 2001 when George W. Bush first took office. Prior to the election, McCain voters tended to think that the crime rate was pretty close to the same as when Bush first assumed the office. After Obama was elected and inaugurated, this opinion shifted, with the average McCain voter now closer to saying the crime rate was up. Obama voters had the opposite pattern: believing that crime was somewhat up while Bush was still in office, but shifting to thinking that crime was about the same as when Clinton left office when Obama became president. Both were wrong: crime was lower in 2008 and 2009 than in 2001. But both sets of voters’ opinions about the crime rate clearly shifted in line with the transfer in power, illustrating the degree to which these views can be shaped by politics.

Figure 1. Estimates and 95 percent confidence intervals for perceptions of changes in the nation’s crime rate compared to 2001 for six different times around the 2008 election, separately for those who voted for John McCain and those who voted for Barack Obama

Even in an age of striking partisan polarization, the police and criminal justice system and the possibility of reform have become hyperparitsan issues in the Black Lives Matter era (Drakulich and Denver 2022). Political identities are in part the product of racial ideologies. The Republican ‘southern strategy’ was an explicit effort to recruit voters uncomfortable with changing race relations (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Maxwell and Shields 2019; Tonry 2011). Racial animus or racial resentment appeared to play a role in vote choice in the 2008 election (Krupnikov and Piston 2015), the rise of the tea party (Hochschild 2016; Tope, Pickett, and Chiricos 2015), and the 2016 election (Drakulich et al. 2017, 2020; Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018). Crime and justice issues have long served as key ‘dog whistles’ to rally voters uncomfortable with changes that threaten white privileges (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Drakulich et al. 2020; Haney-López 2014; Tonry 2011). Partisanship and political polarization can itself be traced to the Civil Rights Movement and the racist and segregationist counter-movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Carmines and Stimson 1989; Lang and Pearson-Merkowitz 2015; McAdam and Kloos 2014; McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell 2014).

Historically, punitive approaches to crime have enjoyed relative popularity. Tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies garnered public support beginning in the 1960s and escalating in the 1990s in the US (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Garland 2002; Tonry 2011). Regardless of the directionality of the relationship between public opinion, politics, and the media (Beckett 2000; Campbell 2015; Pickett 2019), a general ‘popular punitiveness’ characterizes the average response of Americans to questions of crime policy during this time. As noted above, however, there is also some evidence that people also support non-punitive solutions, often in addition to punitive solutions (Cullen et al. 2000; Unnever et al. 2010; Vuk et al. 2020). In other words, public views of justice policies may be more complicated and nuanced than sometimes portrayed. More recently, there has been evidence of shifting public opinion in favor of reform and away from punitive support (e.g. Ramirez 2013a; Thielo et al. 2016), which seemed to correspond to anecdotal evidence for a shift including potential bipartisan collaborations between fiscal conservatives and social justice liberals at the state and federal level, and of course the passage of the modest FIRST STEP act. But there are reasons to be concerned about whether this is meaningful (Drakulich and Kirk 2016), or whether it remains true.

Reform efforts still face substantial public opinion barriers: existing criminal justice institutions remain popular (Pew Research Center 2022), there tends to be the broadest support for the least impactful reforms (Gottschalk 2016; Thielo et al. 2016), most white Americans oppose the social movement calling for justice reforms (Drakulich et al. 2021), and even after a real decrease in serious crime lasting decades, there was not enough public support to produce meaningful national reform. Recent substantial media attention to potential increases in some kinds of crime—as well as popular narratives blaming rising crime on reform policies or even on mere criticisms of the police—may be significantly eroding public support (Sullivan, Sotomajor, and Alemany 2021). And, as detailed above, framing efforts against reform may be particularly effective, especially among those concerned about threats to white privilege (e.g. Drakulich and Denver 2022). Finally, prior reports of growing support for reform among some Republicans and optimism about bipartisan solutions may be impeded by growing partisanship (Drakulich and Denver 2022; Ramirez 2013a). However, as discussed below, even if particular policies enjoy strong public support, politicians may not enact them.

How do the public and politicians interpret public opinion?

It is hard to measure and interpret public opinion in meaningful, fair, and just ways. The ‘average’ American is a social construction (Igo 2008), and averaged views obviously do not reflect everyone’s views. In reality, not everyone’s views count equally. Averaged views ignore the social structure of society that elevates some voices over others (Blumer 1948). Duxbury (2021), for instance, finds that the adoption of incarceration policies appeared responsive to White but not Black public support for punitive policies. In different moments, politicians may pay more attention to their partisan base, or presumed swing voters, or presumed single-issue voters.

Further, public opinion as reflected through surveys is very sensitive to a wide variety of methodological factors, including the questions that are and are not asked, question wording and framing, answer category options, sampling strategies, etc. Follow-up questions and qualitative approaches often reveal that public interpretations of public opinion surveys different from the meaning of the answers intended by the respondents. For instance, people may accept the death penalty as a punishment for serious crime, but prefer other punishments like life without parole when given the option (Bowers, Vandiver, and Dugan 1994; Cullen et al. 2000).

As described above, public opinion is a social construction, the target of framing labor by political actors. It is also itself a tool in those framing efforts. Social movement and political actors can, through selective citation and interpretation, present public opinion in ways that support their political goals. Through these processes, public opinion can be weaponized in ways that either support efforts for justice and equality or reinforce inequalities and protect harmful practices. Politicians have made much of public opposition to the idea of defunding the police while missing stronger public support for the related idea of justice reinvestment (e.g. Wozniak 2020). Similarly, some political actors have highlighted the lack of support for abolitionist approaches among Black Americans without asking what this means, or what other options for public safety people imagine they might have access to.

In general, public opinion often doesn’t have much of an effect on what politicians do because there isn’t a lot of coherent public opinion on many of the issues politicians deal with (Burstein 2014). The public and political actors lack access to accurate, systemic, and holistic information about crime and the functioning of the criminal justice system—as well as to accurate and nuanced information about public opinion on these issues—which presents barriers to reform (Mears 2017). Politicians may pay less attention to overall levels of support and to opinions about specific policies, but may respond to changes in policy mood (Stimson 1999, 2004). This leads to a modest congruence between policy support and implementation overall (Lax and Phillips 2012), and as noted above, a seeming punitive bias in which opinions hold sway (Lax and Phillips 2012; Pickett 2019).

In sum, public opinion can present substantial barriers to reform. Racism is a consistent predictor of public opinion on crime and justice, and particularly of pro-punitive and anti-reform sentiment. Concerns about threats to white privilege also make people susceptible to racial framings in shaping their views of the current system., protests, and reforms. Overall punitive approaches to crime control remain popular, and seeming increases in support for alternatives has not produced meaningful reforms. One of the reasons for this is the indirect path between public opinion and policy implementation, in which political actors pay attention to shifts in public opinion more than overall levels of support, may not recognize the degree to which that opinion is driven by racial animosities, pay attention to general moods over opinion about specific policies, and exhibit a punitive bias in which the threshold for achieving non-punitive reform is especially high. At least two explanations may account for this punitive bias. As discussed above, punitive messages have long been used to signal to people interested in preserving the racial status quo (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Drakulich et al. 2020; Weaver 2007), even if for many the association is unconscious and the racial preferences implicit (K. Drakulich 2015b; Tonry 2011). Additionally, political actors have long found success in ‘governing through crime’: creating and responding to crime crises in ways that trade short term political utility for a longer-term crisis of governance (Simon 2009). This is an example of the “emergency or short-term thinking problem” (Mears 2017:42).

In sum, the news is not good: changing some of the public’s minds may not be enough to effect change, and a significant portion of the public is primed to resist changes based on racialized concerns. And these barriers do not appear to be exclusive to the U.S.: evidence of penal populism exists in other countries (Jennings et al. 2017; Roberts et al. 2003), as does a strong connection between group threat and punitive attitudes (Cochran and Piquero 2011; Ousey and Unnever 2012; Trahan and Pierce 2022; Wheelock, Semukhina, and Demidov 2011).

THE GOOD NEWS: PUBLIC OPINION AS A TOOL FOR JUSTICE AND EQUALITY

Despite all of the bad news, there is promise in examining public opinion about crime and justice with an eye toward reform. First, there has been a remarkable shift in opinion since the beginning of Black Lives Matter. Substantially more Americans recognize that there are serious issues with the criminal justice system, and more broadly that there are serious issues of racial inequality that need to be addressed (e.g. Brenan 2020; Pew Research Center 2015, 2020a, 2020b). Awareness of issues of police violence and misbehavior and mass incarceration have increased substantially. Despite highly visible signs of overt racism, white Americans appear less implicitly or explicitly pro-white since the movement began (Sawyer and Gampa 2018). There has been substantial support for the movement and the idea of real reform among the growing number of antiracist white Americans (Drakulich et al. 2021). This is a remarkable success attributed to the hard and dangerous work of organizers and other movement actors. That this work has also engendered a racist backlash is not a sign of its failure, but rather a sign of success, if also of the barriers still to overcome: racial progress inevitably provokes racist responses as a protective mechanism (Blumer 1958; Bobo and Hutchings 1996; Kendi 2017). Flipping this, a lack of racist backlash may be a sign that people are comfortable that there is no current threat to status quo racial inequalities.

In this spirit, I close with several suggestions for using public opinion as a tool for achieving justice and inequality—for achieving meaningful reform.

Whose voices?

First, I noted above that the opinions of some members of the public have historically influenced policy more than others. Public opinion researchers have the power to change this process. Specifically, public opinion researchers can work to elevate the voices of two specific groups of people. The first is those members of the public whose voices have historically been excluded, or whose voices are harder to hear because of structural exclusion and social marginalization. The second is people who are most impacted by these topics: those most impacted by crime as well as justice system processes. These categories include diverse sets of people and overlap substantially but far from completely.

I do not want to undersell this point: this is really hard work to do. Purportedly representative surveys typically underrepresent poor people, Black people, indigenous people, non-English speakers, noncitizens (and particularly undocumented noncitizens), and housing-insecure people, among many others. Nearly all representative surveys exclude institutionalized persons, including those incarcerated in jails and prisons. This is a striking omission for work studying public opinion about our justice system, one which echoes the structural exclusion of many currently and formerly incarcerated people from participating politically (Burch 2013; Manza and Uggen 2006). Importantly, while elevating these voices necessarily involves more inclusive sampling strategies, it also requires a consideration of the specific, different, and multi-dimensional forces and dynamics that may be shaping public opinion among people in these groups. Better information on the views of these groups would inform and place pressure on the decisions of policymakers.

Identifying and interpreting the voices

Interpreting this public opinion also poses challenges. In the midst of a ballot effort to fundamentally reorganize and reduce the size of the Minneapolis police department, much attention was paid to a poll that found that Black residents were less likely to support reducing the size of the police department, but the same survey also showed that Black voters also had less favorable views of the police department overall, and were also more supportive of Medaria Arradondo, the first Black police chief in the history of the department (e.g. Hirsi 2021). It is easy to summarize the results in ways that support contradictory stories. But there are potential solutions here.

Those groups historically excluded from society more broadly have also been historically excluded from the academy. Many researchers will not share important lived experiences with these populations, and thus may struggle to figure out exactly what to ask, how to ask it, and how to interpret the results. Engaging with (and citing) scholars from these groups who have done work on these groups is the bare minimum recommendation. But the better recommendation is twofold: to actively work to support efforts to diversify the academy overall, and to specifically work to include diverse voices as contributors in specific public opinion research projects. Thus, in elevating the voices of researchers from historically excluded groups, we can do better research that helps to elevate the voices of people from these groups overall.

In general, moving from simplistic summaries of the proportion who support some specific policy requires asking better follow-ups to see how people are understanding and interpreting the question, what they see as their options or alternatives, and what motivates their answers. Qualitative and mixed-method approaches have an advantage here, which is important to keep in mind in an era when online quantitative surveys have become substantially cheaper and easier to administer.

Integrating theory and public opinion research

The question of interpretation is fundamentally connected to theory. Berinsky’s (2017) review of the state of public opinion research concludes with two important sets of recommendations: the methodological concern is about sampling methods, a different way of thinking about the question of “voice” (one component of which is representativeness). The second is the importance of theory: “relying on theory is especially important because arguments about the meaningfulness of measures of public opinion cannot and will not be settled by hypothesis tests” (p. 324).

Theory is necessary to guide the measurement of and to interpret public opinion. At the same time, public opinion research can inform theory. Academic work on racism illustrates the mutually dependent and beneficial relationship between theory and public opinion research.  Beginning at least as early as the 1970s, public opinion researchers were noting a substantial decline in public support for overtly racist policies and practices, like segregation and legal discrimination. An atheoretical approach may have interpreted this as a sign of the declining significance of race and racism. But public opinion researchers noticed something else as well: this seeming decline in racism was not accompanied by an increase in support for the kinds of policies that would direct address racial inequalities and injustices (Schuman, Steeh, and Bobo 1985; Sears and McConahay 1973). This set off a particularly rich era of theorizing about a new modern racist ideology (Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018; Kinder and Sears 1981; Sidanius, Devereux, and Pratto 1992).

The same has been and can be true for work on crime and justice issues. Work on police injustice and legal cynicism developed in part out of survey work (Hagan and Albonetti 1982; Hagan, Shedd, and Payne 2005; Kirk and Papachristos 2011; Matsueda et al. 2011; Sampson and Bartusch 1998), and even richer theoretical concepts like legal estrangement emerged when qualitative scholars engaged with these ideas (Bell 2017; see also Brunson 2007). Theory can help us challenge assumptions and reframe questions, particularly, as recommended above, when it elevates the voice of scholars and the public who have historically been excluded. Work on procedural justice, for instance, has tended to center and normalize the disproportionately positive views of the police of White Americans, framing the generally more critical views of Black Americans as a legitimacy deficit (Bell 2017). Reframing this question and its assumptions leads us to a different question: why are White Americans so much less likely to have critical views of the police, even in an era when examples of police misbehavior are widely available? This reframing leads us to different theoretical answers: away from an exclusive focus on direct experiences with the police, and towards an examination of the racial ideologies underlying these views (Drakulich et al. Accepted, 2022).

Systematizing access to public opinion about crime

Mears (2017) suggests a systematizing of public opinion surveys within communities and across criminal justice subsystems. Though this would not be a simple task, if done right it could achieve some of the potential goods outlined above. If done wrong, however, it could reinforce or exaggerate the barriers to reform outlined above and help strengthen inequalities, injustices, and ineffectiveness. As Mears (2017) points out, accurate information about crime, community safety, and the effective, equitable, and just operation of the justice systems is not readily available either to justice system administrators, policy-makers, or the public. Some of this is a problem with the existing collection and dissemination of administrative data, which tends to prioritize public dissemination of street rather than suite crimes through the uniform crime reporting system (Hagan 2010), does not make information on officer misbehavior or use of force broadly accessible (Knox, Lowe, and Mummolo 2019; Phillips 2010), and is generally biased as a consequence of procedural decisions and in favor of protecting the institution (Eterno, Verma, and Silverman 2016; Knox et al. 2019; Richardson, Schultz, and Crawford 2019). But the community may themselves be in a better position to report on issues facing the community that do not show up in these administrative data.

If community surveys were conducted following the recommendations above, they may provide valuable information for justice system administrators, policymakers, and the public. But as in all system evaluations, correctly setting the goals is key.  Where the current evaluations sometimes focus on arrests or crime rates as outcomes, a community justice approach recommends setting community safety and well-being more broadly as the goal (Clear and Karp 1999). This would necessarily include community concerns about police victimization in addition to civilian victimization (Pickett, Graham, and Cullen 2021). Such an evaluation should also set justice and equity as fundamental goals that our justice system should be accountable for achieving: how much injustice—ranging from unjustified stops and unwarranted uses of force to the imprisonment and execution of innocent people—and inequity does the system produce? Relatedly, in response to the idea than many contemporary policing practices are exclusionary, Bell (2017) recommends reorienting towards a justice system goal of inclusion.

As Mears (2017) suggests, surveys of justice system workers and justice-system involved persons can also provide valuable insight in different ways. Surveys of those who have had contact with the police or are in jails or prisons can provide valuable insight into the experiences of those most impacted by the justice system. These efforts, of course, would need to carefully consider and manage the ethical concerns about the ability to consent to research in institutional settings or among those who may fear institutional reprisal.

On the other hand, surveys of justice system workers need to be interpreted as workplace surveys that likely center employee and institutional needs over community needs (something of course not unique to justice institutions).  Police and correctional officer unions, for instance, representing the interests of justice system workers, have generally opposed non-punitive reforms (Page 2011). Surveys of police officers have found them less likely than the general public to believe that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality or that police reforms are needed (Morin et al. 2017).

To achieve the promise that public opinion research may hold for criminal justice reform, this work would necessarily need to be completely independent of the justice system, and its success would need to be judged on the merits of its accuracy and thoughtfulness in reporting public opinion rather than on crime or justice system outcomes. As Pierce et al. (n.d.) point out, systems wherein actors who are responsible for making key decisions are also at least partially responsible for producing information that forms the basis for their decisions are at risk of endogenous system bias, a process by which key actors may consciously or unconsciously bias the way they collect, organize, disseminate, present and/or interpret information in order to achieve or support a desired outcome. People and institutions who are directly invested in the current system are, for obvious reasons, unlikely to suggest that they be replaced with new systems or support systemic reforms that may threaten their livelihood.

In this way, while public opinion has frequently acted as a barrier to reform efforts, that need not be the case. Systematic public polling by an independent institutional entity could provide valuable information for justice system administrators, policymakers, and the public. This work should be oriented towards evaluating whether community safety—defined more broadly than UCR victimizations—community well-being, justice, equity, and inclusion are being achieved. This work should elevate the voices of those most impacted by crime and the justice system and those whose voices have historically been marginalized. The data should be interpreted carefully and thoughtfully, informed by people with diverse perspectives and experiences relevant to the populations being studied. And the work should both inform and be informed by theoretical models of crime and justice processes that can be helpful in determining solutions to address identified problems.

NOTES

[i] The cumulative data file includes data from every American National Election Studies ‘Time Series’ survey from 1948-2020. The racial resentment and death penalty questions were asked in the same survey 10 times between 1988 and 2020. Racial resentment is a measure of modern racism widely used in prior work (Henry and Sears 2002). In each survey year, I measure this as the average response (on five-point agreement scales) to four questions: whether Blacks should overcome prejudice and work their way up without “special favors,” whether slavery and discrimination created conditions that remained significant barriers for lower-class Blacks, whether Blacks had gotten less than they deserved, and whether inequalities would be solved if Blacks tried harder. The second and third questions are reverse-coded such that high values of the measure reflect greater racial resentment. In each survey respondents were asked whether they favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. I use included sample weights to make the sample look more like the voting-age population of the US in that year. The table presents the estimates of the correlations (all of which are significant at the p <.001 level) plus the sample sizes for each of the survey years.

[ii] A panel of voters was asked how the nation’s current crime rate compared to 2001 6 times over an 18-month period between January of 2008 and July of 2009. I used weights to make the data more representative of the population eligible to vote in in the 2008 presidential election and restricted the sample to those who did vote for McCain or Obama. Respondents were given five answer categories., and in each wave the average respondent answered somewhere between the third (“about the same”) and fourth (“somewhat higher”) answer category. The graph presents means and 95 percent confidence intervals for each of the six waves in which this question was asked for two groups of respondents: those who voted for John McCain in November of 2008 and those who voted for Barack Obama. All respondents who voted for McCain or Obama and answered the question are included in each wave, from a low of 1419 respondents in wave 6 to a high of 2690 in wave 9, but the results are substantively identical when restricting the sample to the 1010 respondents who answered the question in all 6 waves.

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