Part 2: Offline Sources
In Part 1, I offered the results of web searches. I was mostly interested in the answers given to public polls and scientific surveys. I did include some analysis as well, but this post will focus more on that aspect. So, I’ve turned to the books I own in order to gain more context, about the data itself as well as about the political and historical background.
I’ll highlight one issue. It is a chicken or the egg scenario.
The political elites are fairly clueless about the views of the general public, including their own constituents. At the same time, the average American is clueless about what those in government are actually doing. This disconnection is what one expects from a society built on a class-based hierarchy with growing extremes of inequality. In countries that have lower inequality, there is far less disconnection between political elites and the citizenry.
It isn’t clear who is leading who. How could politicians simply be doing what the public wants when they don’t know what the public wants? So, what impact does public opinion even have? There is strong evidence that public opinion might simply be following elite opinion and reacting to the rhetoric heard on the MSM.
Populations are easily manipulated by propaganda, as history shows. That seems to be the case with the United States as well.
As such, it isn’t clear how punitive most Americans actually are. When given more and better information, when given more and better options, most Americans tend to focus away from straightforward punitive policies. Imagine what the public might support if we ever had an open and honest debate based on the facts.
From Books: Data and Analysis
Inequality & Violence in the United States: Casualties of Capitalism
By Barbara H. Chasin
Kindle Locations 319-367
Owners of the media have the power to decide the content of what we see. Violence and action are very appealing to producers. Media analyst and critic George Gerbner, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, is convinced that economic motives explain much media content. Violence, he claims, is a “good commodity for the global market.” It “travels well, you don’t need to trans- late.”36 In other words, violent entertainment can be more easily exported. Grunts, yells, and moans can be understood in many languages. There is no need to deal with possibly delicate issues of sex or politics, and humor is often culture-bound.
The managers of the media decide how we will be entertained and what information we will have. In chapters 4 and 5 we will be discussing the power of corporate executives, but here we will look at one aspect of that power as part of our discussion of the relationship between the media and violence. Media executives are at the top of what sociologist C. Wright Mills termed the “cultural apparatus,” where information, interpretations of reality, and entertainment are produced and distributed.37
The media focuses much more attention on street crime than on the more harmful corporate wrongdoing. A report issued by Arizona State University’s School of Justice, “Confronting Violent Crime in Arizona,” claims, “Corporate crimes, which are not only prevalent but physically dangerous, even deadly, receive little attention and may not be covered as crime at all, but rather as a business matter.” In 1999 media critic Morton Mintz asked the chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division, James Robinson, the following question: “How often have you seen or heard of a newspaper editorial or column … or talking head criticizing grave corporate crime or misconduct?” Robinson answered, “I can’t remember the most recent occasion.”39
Since the media is both interlocked with major corporations and is also dependent on them for advertising, their reluctance to criticize corporate practices is understandable. Emphasizing street crime over business crime is useful to political figures as well. As George Gerbner points out, “Fear of the mean world is politically exploitable.” As we shall see, politicians are not very likely to offer constituents protection from corporate malfeasance, but they do claim they can lessen the harm from other forms of violence.
Journalists engage in self-censorship, a way of protecting their jobs. The Pew Center for the People and the Press polled 287 news personnel in 2000. One-third of those surveyed said they would not report on news that might be harmful to the financial interests of their media outlet or advertisers. Sixty-one percent of investigative reporters believed that corporations influenced what was reported as news. In the same year another study was conducted by the Project on Excellence in Journalism. Here also one-third of TV news directors admitted that they had been asked to either promote positive stories about their advertisers or, at least, stay away from negative ones.39
Television news is dominated by crime stories in the belief that this will increase ratings. The motto of television news producers seems to be “if it bleeds, it leads”; “a lurid crime report with a high body count will … become the lead story, no matter how insignificant its actual news value.” Media commentators sometimes use the phrase “body-bag journalism” to convey how news programming aims toward the sensational.40
Television crime coverage does not reflect actual crime rates, according to the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). From January 1989 to January 1992, the three major networks spent an average of “67 minutes a month on crime stories.” In the period from October 1993 to January 1994, they were spending over 157 minutes a month on this topic. In the six months between June and November of 1993, media stories of violent crime went up by 400 percent.41
If you watched television news in the New York area between 1996 and 1997, you would not know that homicide rates had declined. The director of the city’s CBS station, Bill Carey, remarked, “The fact that percentages are down doesn’t affect our coverage.” Joseph Agnotti, a communications professor at the University of Miami, himself a former executive at NBC news, studied local news programs in eight cities in 1997. His research team discovered that about one-third of local news was devoted to crimes. Agnotti had an explanation: “It’s the easiest, cheapest, laziest news to cover because all they do is listen to the police radio, react to it … and put it on the air.” The team also found that in some of the cities studied the highest ratings were going to stations with the least amount of crime news.42
In Los Angeles researchers sampled thirty-five hours of news coverage on local TV, finding that crime stories made up “23 percent to 54 percent of all news coverage.” It was news presented as entertainment with little analysis. Much less attention was given to upcoming elections in California. “Of 2,059 minutes of news, just over eight minutes concerned the gubernatorial primary.”43
Television news has been found by sociologists to have an especially strong impact on viewers’ fear of crime. In 1994 Ted Chircos, Sarah Escholz, and Marc Gertz surveyed 2,092 people living in Tallahassee, Florida, at the peak of a media frenzy about violent crime. Listening to television and radio news was significantly related to having a higher level of fear, with white women being the group most likely to be afraid, even though this is a category with a relatively low rate of victimization. The researchers hypothesized that the women were identifying with the victims who were more likely to be white and female than either male or non- white.44 Nonwhite young males are the most likely, in fact, to be victims of violent street crime.
In January 1994 U.S. News and World Report had a cover story on crime, claiming crime has been increasing since 1960, a distortion of the data. Crime rates have gone up and down in that thirty-four-year period.41 Time magazine’s August 23, 1994, cover story was “America the Violent,” with a subheading noting, “crime is spreading and patience is running out.” The bright red cover had a lurid illustration of a sinister-looking young man, with a frightening inhuman face glaring out, not a well-dressed executive with a briefcase. Inside, the reader was told that people are in danger doing the ordinary things of life: going to the hospital, a fast-food restaurant, or the shopping mall.
A Los Angeles Times survey reported that 65 percent of respondents got their information about crime from the media.46 Between June 1993 and February 1994 the percentage of those telling Washington Post pollsters that crime was the most important issue facing the country rose from 5 to 31 percent.47 National survey data also showed a steep rise in the general feeling that crime is the most important problem in the nation. Between January 1993 and January 1994 the percentage of respondents identifying crime as the most important problem in the country rose from 9 percent to 37 percent, a 400 percent increase, but not a reflection of any similar increase in crime rates.48
Sociologist Barry Glassner thinks many Americans have excessive fears of things that won’t harm most of them while being far less aware of the real dangers confronting many. He calls this a “culture of fear,” noting:
We often fear the wrong things…. One of the paradoxes of a culture of fear is that serious problems remain widely ignored even though they give rise to precisely the dangers that the populace most abhors. Poverty, for example, correlates strongly with child abuse, crime, and drug abuse. Income inequality is also associated with adverse outcomes for society as a whole. The larger the gap between rich and poor in a society, the higher its overall death rates from heart disease, cancer, and murder.49
These are issues less likely to be attention-grabbing items.
While a careful reading of the media can provide useful information, there is much that is missing or distorted in the analysis we get from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. For instance, the relationships between corporate goals and resources, political decisions, and the conditions that give rise to interpersonal violence are rarely discussed. The media also do not often report on collective efforts that have helped solve social problems, and they rarely give information on how problems have been alleviated and the quality of life improved in other countries.50
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Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse
By Todd R. Clear
Kindle Locations 1019-1036
But during that same time, public concern about crime also began to grow. By the late 1960s, there began to be the earliest glimmers of a tough-on-crime movement in many areas of the country, and in fact, crime concerns became a national theme during the second Nixon presidential campaign (1972). For a brief period in the 1970s, a consensus of conservative and liberal intellectuals argued that the “rehabilitation” era of penology had failed and that the proper purpose of prisons was to punish those who broke the law. There was a difference of opinion about the value of prisons for anything else, however. It is hard to believe today, but at the outset of the 1970s, the Left was excited about the growing irrelevance of prisons in crime policy (American Friends Service Committee 1971). Meanwhile, the Right was convinced that prisons were a central weapon in the War on Crime (van den Haag 1975; Wilson, 1975). They agreed that the next step in penal policy should treat prisons as primarily an instrument of punishment.
In those years, there came to be a hard edge to public sentiment about crime. Crime rates began to rise in the 1960s and continued their rise throughout the 1970s. Public opinion polls consistently found that crime was at or near the top of people’s worries about the country (Flanagan and Longmire, 1996). This concern about crime also served as a symbol for other, less easily voiced worries about civil-rights unrest, antiwar disturbances, and bubbling reaction to the underlying principles of the welfare state and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In the public mind, the social fabric of American society had broken down and disorder and disruption were rampant. A strong response—law and order—was required.
Public debate was accompanied by political action. Predictably, the action started where consensus was greatest, so by the end of the 1970s, seven states had abolished parole release—sometimes for everyone and sometimes for people convicted of certain “serious” crimes—by establishing a “presumptive” sentence to be served (minus good time). For the most part, public debate about these laws lacked any defenders of the status quo, and debaters differed only in the degree to which the sentences should get longer.
Kindle Locations 2077-2089
Sociologist Robert Crutchfield has been interested in the way social conditions, such as labor markets, affect attitudes toward society and community, especially social cohesion and trust as building blocks for social capital (see Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997). Recently Crutchfield (2005) investigated the impact of concentrated levels of young men in reentry on the attitudes of neighbors who had not been to prison. In a survey of residents of Seattle, Washington, Crutchfield asked respondents a series of questions regarding their attitudes toward the legitimacy of the law and the belief in authority—questions tapping social cohesion and trust. He found that in neighborhoods where there are high rates of young men returning from prison, overall social cohesion and trust are affected: in “neighborhoods with relatively large concentrations of former prisoners and, by extension . . . communities with more churning of people into and out of the prison system . . . [the negative attitude] in those places that we ordinarily attribute to economic disadvantage is due in part to sentencing patterns and correctional policies” (2004). This disrespect of formal institutions portends badly for community safety, as earlier work has shown that individuals whose jobs hold no future have less of a stake in conformity and are more likely to engage in criminal activity (Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997). In similar research in New York City, Tyler and Fagan (2005) show that people in the neighborhoods where incarceration rates are highest tend to view the police as unfair and disrespectful, corroding their views of the legitimacy of policing and broader governmental authority, and in turn signaling their withdrawal from social regulation and political life.
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Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
By Devah Pager
Kindle Locations 2114-2124
7. J. H. Lipschultz and M. L. Hilt, Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live from the Scene (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002). Coverage of violent crime, in particular, is often sharply disconnected from actual crime trends. As the murder rate fell by roughly 40 percent during the 1990s, for example, the number of murder stories on NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news shows increased by more than 600 percent. This increase does not include stories related to the O. J. Simpson case. Author’s calculations based on data from the Center for Media and Public Affairs; see also Joseph F. Sheley and Cindy D. Ashkins, “Crime, Crime News, and Crime Views,” Public Opinion Quarterly 45, no. 4 (1981): 492-506; and D. A. Graber, Crime News and the Public (New York: Praeger, 1980). Media distortions notwithstanding, trends in public opinion did respond to falling crime rates. The percentage of Americans who ranked crime/violence as the number-one problem facing the country peaked in 1994 and then declined during the late 1990s. Likewise, between 1992 and 1999, a decreasing proportion of Americans believed that there had been more crime in the United States that year than in the year before. Nevertheless, the percentage ranking crime/violence as the number-one problem facing the country in 1999 (17 percent), after a decade of falling crime rates, was far higher than it had been at the start of the decade (1 percent), and more than half of all Americans in 1999 continued to believe that there had been more crime in the United States that year than in the year before. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Source book of Criminal justice Statistics (2003), tables 2.1, 2.33; see also Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), 17-20, for a striking analysis of public opinion about crime and drugs during the preceding decades.
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Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs
By Doris Marie Provine
Kindle Locations 1467-1508
The Media and the Message about Crack
Crack cocaine proved the key to rekindling public interest in tough punishments for illicit drugs. Public concern about illicit drugs had stayed at a low ebb in the early years of the Reagan administration, despite the president and Nancy Reagan’s efforts to focus public attention on the issue (Jensen, Gerber, and Babcock 1991, 655-56). In 1985 and through most of 1986, Gallup public opinion surveys rated drugs a distant fourth among all problems facing the nation (Gallup Institute 1986). Crack, though on the streets in some large cities, was largely unknown to the American public. This changed dramatically in the spring of 1986 after the cocaine-related deaths of two celebrity athletes: Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball star who had just signed a contract with the Boston Celtics, and Don Rogers, a member of the Cleveland Browns who died the day before he was to be married. Crack was initially blamed for their powder-induced fatalities.
Orcutt and Turner (1993) describe an unprecedented “media epidemic” of coverage in 1986 that began with the deaths of Bias and Rogers. In July, the three networks offered seventy-four evening news segments on drugs, half about crack. In the three months before the 1986 election, there were one thousand stories discussing crack. Fifteen million viewers watched a CBS documentary on crack in the fall of 1986, the highest on record for a news documentary. The competition for audience spawned other primetime and news programs. NBC, for example, produced four hundred separate stories devoted to crack. Newsweek called it the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate, describing crack as “the most addictive drug known to man,” while Time made crack its issue of the year in 1986 (Szalavitz 1999; see generally Reeves and Campbell 1994, 162-83). Several media outlets ran stories suggesting a pandemic of crack use. Public concern about drugs rose in tandem with media coverage (Shoemaker, Wanta, and Leggett 1989, 77-79). Buried in all the attention devoted to crack were a few dissenting voices who suggested that the extent of the recent wave of drug abuse had been seriously exaggerated (Reinarman and Levine 1988, 252). For the most part, however, and in keeping with previous drug wars, there was a lack of critical attention to the actual incidence of crack abuse and to the reliability of the government sources on which the media depended for its stories.
The crack issue returned to the airwaves in 1988, another election year. In April 1988, ABC described crack as “a plague that was eating away at the fabric of America” (Reinarman and Levine 1995, 153). The Washington Post ran 1,565 stories on the drug crisis between October 1988 and October 1989. News coverage, as in the past, typically framed the issue of drug abuse in terms that promoted a criminal justice response (Beckett and Sasson 1998,3o; Reeves and Campbell 1994). The tone grew increasingly moralistic and dramatic over time. News stories included many misleading and inaccurate claims about an “epidemic” of drug use, about crack as a violence-inducing drug, and about pathetic “crack babies” destined to struggle with addiction. The principal theme-that immoral, mostly nonwhite users and dealers were laying siege to middle-class white America-resonated with earlier anti-drug rhetoric and supported the government’s expansionist, law-enforcement approach (Beckett and Sasson 1998,30-33).
Reeves and Campbell looked at 27o news reports broadcasted on the major networks between 1981 and 1988. They found a “cocaine narrative” that spoke menacingly of the drug’s dangers. Cocaine was presented as a pollutant, threatening the purity of vulnerable groups, particularly children, teenagers, and mothers. Important segments of the economy were deemed at risk in these portrayals, especially professional sports and college campuses. Hollywood was infected and might spread its infatuation with drugs more broadly (1994, 15, 19). These news reports, Reeves and Campbell showed, were also clearly raced: “Perhaps the central finding of this study is the disparity in news treatment of `white offenders’ and `black delinquents.’ … Whites were generally depicted as `repentant deviants’ while blacks were often branded as `enemy’ or `contesting deviants”‘ (1994, 42).
The Federal Role in Fomenting Fear of Crack Cocaine
Federal officials actively encouraged the media to focus on crack, but they also benefited from its own fascination with this new threat. The National Institute for Drug Abuse carried out an active campaign in 1986 to “increase public awareness” of the drug problem, offering public service announcements, numerous news releases, and “ride alongs” on federal drug busts. The New York representative of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Robert Stutman, gave hundreds of interviews to encourage media interest. He recalls: “I began a lobbying effort and I used the media. The media were only too willing to cooperate, because as far as the New York media was concerned, crack was the hottest combat reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War” (quoted in Beckett 1997, 56). All of the major networks followed the reports of these agencies closely in their news programs (Reeves and Campbell 1994, 165).
Katherine Beckett demonstrated the extent of government influence on media coverage of drug issues in the Reagan period by analyzing “interpretative packages” in television stories between 1982 and 1991. Each of these packages has a set of “signature issues” that identify it, and a core frame that makes the package coherent, such as “zero tolerance,” or “need more resources,” or “get the traffickers.” She found that most drug stories had their basis in government information, such as footage provided by law-enforcement organizations. These stories tended to be more favorable to escalating the effort than those produced through private sources:
The ascendance of the discourse of law and order in the news … was largely a consequence of officials’ capacity to call attention to and frame discussions of the crime and drug issues. Conservative politicians and law enforcement personnel were particularly successful in defining themselves as the relevant “authorities” on the crime and drug issues. (1997, 65-76,77)
Government officials, including the president, went as far as staging events to promote the idea that crack posed an imminent threat to the nation. To gain support for his $7.8 billion National Drug Control Strategy, newly elected President George H. W. Bush, in his first national television address in September 1989, dramatically held up a bag of crack that he claimed had been bought in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House. The clear implication was that crack could be bought anywhere: “It’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children” (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum). The truth was that federal agents had been unsuccessful in finding anyone in the Lafayette Park selling crack. They resorted to luring eighteen-year-old Keith Timothy Jackson there to make the sale with a promise of $2,400 and with a DEA agent driving him there. The staged sale required two attempts because of initial difficulties with the filming (Lusane 1991, 66-67; and see Elwood 1994, 41; Reinarman and Levine 1997, 23). The strategy was nevertheless successful. Shortly after President Bush’s speech, 64 percent of those responding to a New York Times/CBS News poll labeled drugs the nation’s most important problem. In January 1985, only i percent had held that opinion (Reinarman and Levine 1995,156; Jensen and Gerber 1998, 20).
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Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy
By Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen
Kindle Locations 1244-1262
Changing criminal justice policy has a political foundation. The character and perception of public opinion about crime and punishment is one important component. Figure 4.8 graphs an open-ended question that has been asked of poll respondents every month since the early 196os: What, in their opinion, is the “most important problem facing the nation”?-‘l The remarkable volatility in the importance of crime to the public is a puzzle. Compared to macroeconomic indicators, for example, crime rates are relatively stable from month to month or year to year, yet public concern shifts-often violently-over short periods of time. As Katherine Beckett and others have pointed out, fear of crime appears to be uniquely responsive to mobilization by political leaders.21’ The rapid spike in concern with crime and violence from 5 percent in 1992 to 37 percent in 1994, for example, tracks the fanfare surrounding public debates of President Clinton’s crime bill of that year. Similarly, public concern over drug use as the nation’s most important problem rose rapidly in the late 198os to a peak of 27 percent (and even in one month, September 1989, reaching an astonishing 64 percent after a major speech by President George H. W. Bush). But it diminished rapidly thereafter, to just 6 percent by 1993 and negligible proportions more recently.29
Analysts of crime politics have usually focused on the role of the mass media in shaping fears and influencing public support for harsh punishment practices. The nightly news programs aggressively cover crime stories, exaggerating the problem and feeding public fears. And widespread media depictions of the race of offenders are thus particularly important in the overall s tory and in magnifying public fears. Although African Americans may commit proportionately more crimes than whites, media coverage vastly exaggerates the extent to which blacks are the perpetrators. A political and cultural model that incorporates race is likely the best explanation for rising levels of criminal punishment in the United States.30
One piece of evidence supporting media impact can be seen in the difference between fears of crime in general versus fears of crime in one’s own community. We learn about the nation’s (or a state’s, or a metropolitan area’s) crime problem from the mass media, but we “know” our neighborhood’s crime problem from lived experience. Unlike the sharp peaks shown in the “most important problem” nationally, fear of crime in one’s own neighborhood has been far more stable over the past three decades. We can see this in figure 4.9, which plots an indicator from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey against the rate of serious Index Crimes reported in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Fear of neighborhood crime tracks the reported crime rate far better than public opinion indicators such as the “most important problem.” People are far more likely to perceive a worsening crime rate in the nation as a whole than to perceive a worsening crime rate in their own neighborhoods. In sum, most Americans do not fear crime in their immediate environment but do fear it elsewhere. Even more striking, there is some evidence that reported experiences with crime in people’s own neighborhoods actually tracks the aggregate crime rate rather closely, trending downward sharply in the 1990s.
Kindle Locations 2241-2252
The main evidence of strong public support for punitive policies comes from repeated survey items asked since the 196os and 1970s. Three items have been tracked the most consistently-and have been the most widely cited-in support of the view that the public has become more punitive: (i) support for the death penalty; (2) beliefs that courts do not treat criminals harshly enough; and (3) beliefs that the government spends too little on crime. Figure 9.1 charts the trends on these three items.
Overall, support for these items follows a common trend. Public punitiveness steadily increased from the i96os through 1980, fluctuated at high levels through the 198os, but has declined since the early 199os. The increase in the 1970s parallels the beginnings of the incarceration boom, but what is striking is that ever-higher levels of punishment from the mid-19706 to the 199os did not lead the public to withdraw support for more punitive measures. It was not until the 199os that support began to fall. To account for this anomaly, one public opinion researcher has suggested the metaphor of a “broken thermostat”: public support for harsh punishment failed to decline even though policymakers repeatedly delivered such policies.
The master trends represented in figure 9.1 have framed the debate over criminal justice policy. The predominant interpretation of public opinion in these debates has typically been that the public wants even more and stricter punishment. But there are at least two reasons to be cautious about such an interpretation. First, and most obviously, since the mid-199os public support for two of the three measures (harshness and spending) has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s (with support for the death penalty declining as well, but not nearly as far). The “broken thermostat” metaphor was therefore more appropriate a decade ago than it is today.
Second, the most plausible interpretation of the source of these trends is that political elites have shaped public attitudes, rather than the other way around.4
Kindle Locations 2257-2265
The mere fact that the public responded to the anti-crime agenda with support for tougher sanctions is in itself significant. Trends in public opinion gain meaning when political elites “read” them as reflecting a desire for some policy direction, in this case greater punishment. Yet the widely shared view of public support for harsh criminal justice policies may be a product of narrow opinion measures that fail to capture the complexity of public attitudes in this area. For example, what happens when survey respondents are given more choices, or are allowed to express more than one preference? A variety of experiment-based survey research suggests that the views of the public on criminal justice are much more complex, and less one-dimensional, than is suggested by the narrow range of items in figure 9.1.
Consider attitudes about the death penalty. While most Americans support the death penalty, this support drops drastically when respondents are presented with the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole.” Similarly, support for long prison terms is reduced when community-based alternatives are presented as a sentencing option, especially for nonviolent offenders.’ And when given the opportunity to express multidimensional preferences, many survey respondents report wanting both to incapacitate offenders and to rehabilitate them., None of this means that punitive views are not strongly held in the mass public, but experimental survey designs reveal a far more complex portrait than is commonly supposed. Rather than a clear consensus in favor of harshness, public opinion in the area of criminal justice is better characterized as multidimensional and subject to issue-framing effects.
Kindle Locations 2298-2313
A sophisticated public opinion literature has criticized the view that policy preferences of most citizens are measurable in meaningful ways by opinion polls and surveys. According to this argument, people have notably low levels of information about policy issues, leading them to guess in response to survey research questions. Such responses are thus characterized as “non-attitudes,” in the famous formulation of political scientist Philip Converse.’
The existence of non- or weakly held attitudes may be precisely the aspect of public opinion that permits easy manipulation by elites. In this view, “public opinion surveys present only a rough idea of what people generally think because the results are highly sensitive to a number of factors…. Polls may even create the impression of public opinion on questions in which none actually exists. “‘8
But a countermovement in public opinion research has challenged these conclusions. One response is that it is the ambiguities of the questions, or the complexities of the issues, rather than non-attitudes, that produce respondent instability.”’ Political scientist John Zaller’s powerful theoretical model of survey response claims that people sample among the different possible answers they have in their heads in responding to surveys. The likelihood of any particular response is based on the relative strength of the different possible answers known to the respondent. This explains response inconsistency, but also implies that polls convey meaningful information, where the latter is accordingly subject to the framing of questions and to the contingent nature of individuals’ short-term memory and information level.'” The second, increasingly influential individual-level response has been to show how citizens are capable of reasoning through cues and heuristics of various sorts, even in the absence of detailed information or policy understandings.” The introduction of cognitive psychology into survey research has produced a massive literature showing how survey respondents can-at least sometimes-provide meaningful answers even when they have to guess. Finally, at the macro level, political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro argue that even if some individuals guess in response to survey questions, examination of aggregate responses provides a systematic means of filtering out response instability and non- attitudes.22
It is important to consider at the outset the possibility that surveys may be measuring non-attitudes in the case of felon disenfranchisement. Most survey respondents will know very little about felon voting rights. In responding to survey questions, they may thus be doing exactly what Converse suggested: guessing. On the other hand, since questions about felon disenfranchisement tap sentiments concerning issues of democracy and crime, survey responses may instead reflect considerations about which most respondents do have real opinions. Felon disenfranchisement questions may thus provide, particularly in the aggregate, a plausible portrait of Americans’ reasoning and policy evaluations of this issue.
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Daedalus 139:3 (Summer 2010) – On Mass Incarceration
By Charles Loeffler, Robert J. Sampson, Jeffrey Fagan, Candace Kruttschnitt, Loic Wacquant, Marie Gottschalk, Bruce Western, Glenn C. Loury, and Becky Pettit
Kindle Locations 1232-1244
Based on the research of Graham and Lowery, conscious bias is not a significant producer of racial disparity either, but subconscious bias may be, as well as racial differences in punitiveness and racial stereotypes. Sociologist Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson, for example, summarize public opinion research to show that negative racial stereotypes, antiblack affect, and collective racial resentments translate into increased punitiveness.60 We have no reason to believe that this might not apply to probation workers and police officers who produce a supply of cases for the juvenile court. Research on “colorism” shows that both African Americans and white Americans associate skin tone with criminality and deserved punishment.61 In a series of tests on implicit bias, every population group except African Americans unconsciously associates “African American” with crime or danger and reacts accordingly.62 Tests include recognition of African American faces in crime situations (including possession of weapons)63 and whether to shoot unarmed suspects when they are shown holding ambiguous objects other than guns.64 Confirming what Bridges and Steen and Graham and Lowery reported, the Plant and Peruche tests given to police officers produced the same results.
Kindle Locations 1635-1641
Mounting fiscal pressures on their own will not spur communities, states, and the federal government to empty jails and prisons. The race to incarcerate began in the 1970s, at a time when states faced dire financial straits. It persisted over the next thirty years despite wide fluctuations in the crime rate, public opinion, and the economy. The 2001 recession raised hopes that the prison population would shrink as severe budget deficits forced states to close prisons and lay off guards. But the surge of sentencing and drug-law reforms enacted in the wake of that recession did not make a dent in the U.S. incarceration rate. If history is any guide, rising public anxiety in the face of persistent economic distress and growing economic inequalities may, in fact, ignite support for more punitive penal policies.
Kindle Locations 1661-1667
Studies of the United States and other industrialized countries indicate that the imprisonment rate tends to rise with the unemployment rate, regardless of whether the crime rate is rising or falling.5 Experts disagree about the underlying causal relationship between the unemployment rate and the incarceration rate. We do know that public opinion about crime and punishment is highly susceptible to political manipulation. Some suggest that during hard economic times, it is easier—and more tempting—for government officials and politicians to exploit the popular stereotype of a marauding underclass. Deteriorating economic conditions do not necessarily cause a spike in the crime rate—but the public often believes they do. As the sociologist W. I. Thomas once said, if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
Kindle Locations 1829-1836
Yet policy-makers grossly misperceive public opinion on penal matters, mistakenly seeing the public as more supportive of punitive measures than it actually is.24 This judgment error may explain policy-makers’ persistent reticence to make bold moves that would slash the incarceration rate and why politicians across the political spectrum respond to increases in the crime rate by reflexively calling for more prisons and tougher sentences.
In reality, public opinion research indicates that Americans have a much more nuanced view of spending on criminal justice than the popular media or public-policy debates suggest. The public overwhelmingly favors spending more on policing, crime prevention programs for young people, and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders. But it strongly opposes additional funding for prisons.25
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Note, finally, one particularly important feature of these American electoral dynamics. Crime ranks among the most important issues identified in national opinion surveys and is seen as an especially salient electoral issue when the economy is performing well.47 Local officials like district attorneys and mayors, therefore, stand to gain electorally by promising tougher measures on crime. Yet, crucially, they may not have to fund the costs of such measures themselves or, if they do have to fund them, may not face the full political costs of their economic choices. Mayors, for example, are not responsible for most aspects of a city’s economic performance. In fact, even state governors are rarely regarded by voters as notably responsible for the state of the economy; economic management is primarily attributed to the federal level. In this context, tough law-and-order policies are electorally attractive—and politically costless. This is a powerful recipe for a prisoners’ dilemma in which political actors—including voters—become locked into policy choices that would be in their best interest (individually and as part of a community) to avoid.
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Whatever the synergy between intellectual movements and policy change, we have recently begun to see some lessening of the earlier political demagoguery around crime as well as greater respect for the worthiness of investment in rehabilitation and reentry. Polling suggests that the public is at least slightly less passionately in favor of prison and long sentences as the solution to the crime problem, especially because we now have less of a crime problem. Politicians do not want to credit the recent econometric studies suggesting that the post-1985 spike in incarceration probably accounts for no more than a quarter of the 1990s crime drop2; but it has been beneficial for the movement against mass incarceration that crime is currently a less salient public issue.
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Disparities by social class in this punishment binge are enormous, and they have far-reaching and often deleterious consequences for the families and communities affected. The prisoners come mainly from the most disadvantaged corners of our unequal society; the prisons both reflect and exacerbate this inequality. The factors that lead young people to crime—the “root causes”—have long been known: disorganized childhoods, inadequate educations, child abuse, limited employability, delinquent peers. These are factors that also have long been more prevalent among the poor than the middle classes, though it has for some time been unfashionable to speak of “root causes.” Nevertheless, as Bruce Western stresses in his comprehensive empirical survey of this terrain, “punishment” and “inequality” are intimately linked in modern America, and the causality runs in both directions.4
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Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma
By Michael Tonry
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White Americans, especially political conservatives and fundamentalist Protestants, tend to support harsh punishments, including the death penalty. Black people tend to support harsh punishments at much lower rates. Whites have substantially greater confidence in the justice system and its practitioners than do blacks. Researchers repeatedly find that racial animus and resentment are strong influences on whites’ punitive attitudes. Reciprocally, low levels of confidence in the fairness of the justice system are a major influence on blacks’ attitudes. Most black Americans believe the criminal justice system is racially biased and that black suspects and defendants are treated unfairly. Most whites disagree.
A substantial literature on racial differences in attitudes toward and opinions about crime control policy shows that whites have rationalized a criminal justice system that is disparately severe toward blacks. Early research on the influence of race on attitudes toward the criminal justice system found that racial prejudice (measured by support for racial segregation and belief in black inferiority) was associated with whites’ support for harsh sentencing (Cohn, Barkan, and Halteman 1991), as were negative racial stereotypes (Hurwitz and Peffley 1997), and racial antipathy (a preference for maintaining social distance from blacks; Gilliam and Iyengar 2000).
More recent work has tried to disentangle the influence of racial beliefs and attitudes, distinguishing among racial bigotry, racial resentments, and negative racial stereotyping. Findings consistently show that whites’ belief in inherent black inferiority has almost disappeared. Encouraging as that is, however, findings also demonstrate widely shared white resentments of post–civil rights era efforts to integrate blacks into mainstream American society, and a powerful association between those resentments and support for the crime control and drug policies that have ensnared so many black Americans.
The relevant literature has grown rapidly. The initial focus was on racial differences in support for harsh sentencing policies and for the death penalty. The death penalty literature began to develop after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 228 (1972), which suspended use of capital punishment in the United States, and Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), which reinstituted it. Researchers examined a wide range of issues, including characteristics of death penalty supporters and opponents, whether people’s views changed if they learned more about the subject (sometimes), whether the availability of sentences of life without possibility of parole changed opinions (sometimes), and whether blacks and whites had different views (yes, very).
Efforts have been made to see whether people’s attitudes change when they learn that blacks disproportionately occupy death row cells and that the race of the victim is a primary determinant of whether a murderer is sentenced to death. The most sophisticated study of racial attitudes about the criminal justice system, the National Race and Crime Survey, interviewed a representative sample of 600 white and 600 black Americans (Peffley and Hurwitz 2010). Randomly selected subgroups of the respondents were asked in three different ways whether they favor or oppose capital punishment for persons convicted for murder and whether they held their views strongly. In the first version of the question, they were simply asked their views. Sixty-five percent of whites said they strongly or somewhat favored capital punishment compared with 50 percent of blacks.
In the second version of the question, respondents were first told “Some people say that the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are African Americans” and were then asked whether and how strongly they favor capital punishment. The percentage of black respondents favoring capital punishment fell to 38 percent, but the white percentage in favor increased to 77 percent. In the third version, before being asked their views respondents were told that some people “say the death penalty is unfair because too many innocent people are being executed.” The white percentage was strongly or somewhat in favor (64 percent) and was unchanged from whites’ answer to the first version. Black support fell further, to 34 percent (see table 5.1).
Summarizing those patterns of response, the white percentage was unchanged when reminded that some innocent people are believed to be executed, and it increased substantially when reminded that blacks make up a disproportionate share of those executed. Blacks’ overall support of the death penalty was lower to begin with and fell when respondents were reminded of racial disparities and risks of executing innocent people.
The explanations for those discordant patterns were teased out from analyses of a large number of other variables relating to respondents’ characteristics. Blacks’ lower levels of support are related to the widespread belief that the criminal justice system treats black defendants unfairly; being reminded of problems of racial disparities and possible executions of innocents heightened those anxieties and led to lower levels of support. Few whites, however, believe that the system treats blacks unfairly. Instead, when whites are confronted with an argument about racial bias, “they reject it with such force that they end up expressing more support for the death penalty than when no argument is presented at all” (Peffley and Hurwitz 2010, 175).
In an earlier study, Lawrence Bobo and Devon Johnson (2004) examined blacks’ and whites’ support for capital punishment and the crack cocaine 100-to-1 law and the extent to which opinions changed in light of information about the racial dimensions of those problems (e.g., the disproportionate presence of blacks on death rows; that killers of whites are much more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of blacks; that most crack dealers are black). In general, except concerning the 100-to-1 law, information did not significantly affect whites’ opinions. Racial resentment was strongly related to whites’ support for the death penalty:
The most consistent predictor of criminal justice policy attitudes is, in fact, a form of racial prejudice. While racial resentment does not ever explain a large share of the variation in any of the attitudes we have measured, it is the most consistently influential of the variables outside of race classification itself. This pattern has at least two implications. It further buttresses the concern that some of the major elements of public support for punitive criminal justice policies are heavily tinged with racial animus and thus quite likely to be resistant to change based on suasion and information-based appeals. (171–72)
James Unnever and colleagues have tried to isolate the influence of racial resentments on other issues. One analysis examined data from the 2006 African American Survey undertaken for the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University to explore people’s explanations for racial disparities in imprisonment. This is a huge survey of 1,328 African American men, 507 African American women, and 1,029 members of other racial and ethnic groups. Blacks were substantially likelier than whites to cite denial of jobs and bad schools as “big reasons” for the disparity, but the largest differences concerned bias in the legal system. Seventy-one percent of blacks, but only 37 percent of whites, believed police bias was a primary cause of disparities. Similarly, 67 percent of blacks blamed “unfair courts,” but only 28 percent of whites (Unnever 2008, table 1). The degree to which black respondents had personally experienced what they perceived as racial discrimination “predicts whether African Americans believe that criminal injustices, such as whether the police target black men and whether the courts are more willing to convict African-American men, are reasons for the high incarceration among black men” (527).
The racial difference in perceptions of bias in the justice system that Unnever found is echoed in findings from many other projects. The leading scholar of the subject, Lawrence Bobo, a Harvard sociologist, organized two representative national surveys on race, crime, and public opinion. The 2001 Race, Crime, and Public Opinion Study is a survey of 978 non-Hispanic whites and 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks living in American households. Only 38 percent of whites said they believed the criminal justice system is biased against blacks; 89 percent of blacks said it was. Only 8 percent of blacks said that the justice system “gives blacks fair treatment”; 56 percent of whites said it did. Seventy-nine percent of whites expressed confidence that judges treat blacks and whites equally, compared with only 28 percent of blacks. Concerning police the gap was even bigger: 68 percent of whites expressed confidence in the police, and only 18 percent of blacks did (Bobo and Thompson 2006, 456). The findings of the Peffley and Hurwitz (2010) survey discussed above are similar. Seventy percent of blacks but only 18 percent of whites believed that police and courts treat blacks unfairly (189).
Approaching the same kinds of issues from another angle, Unnever, Cullen, and Jones (2008) analyzed data from the 2000 National Election Study to investigate racial differences in support for social policies to address economic and social causes of crime. Respondents were asked whether they thought “the best way to reduce crime is to address social problems or to make sure criminals are caught, convicted, and punished, or something in between.” A series of follow-up questions asked whether the preferred approach was a “much” or “somewhat” better way to reduce crime. Their main aim was to investigate whether and how people’s attachment to egalitarian beliefs influenced their attitudes toward adoption of nonpunitive anticrime policies (yes, a lot). Their premise was that people with strong commitments to equality are more likely than others to support social policies aimed at preventing crime by reducing the social and economic inequalities associated with it. A variety of demographic (age, sex, race, education, place of residence) and attitudinal (egalitarian beliefs, racial stereotypes, racial resentment) variables were analyzed. Blacks were much more likely than whites to support social policy approaches to crime reduction. Whites with racial resentments toward blacks were much more likely to oppose social policy approaches and to support criminal justice approaches. Here, too, the findings reported by Peffley and Hurwitz (2010) are similar: twice as large a percentage of whites as blacks preferred harsh punishments over social welfare programs as a crime control strategy (162).
Devon Johnson (2008) carried out a particularly comprehensive analysis of the reasons for racial differences in attitudes toward punishment. I describe it in considerable detail to show the basis of the conclusions she drew. The data came from the 2001 Race, Crime, and Public Opinion Study (Bobo and Thompson 2006). A “punitiveness index” was calculated on answers to four questions on a 1–4 scale (1 = “strongly disagree”; 4 = “strongly agree”): Do you favor life sentences for third-time felons? Should parole boards be more strict, less strict, or continue current practices? Should fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds accused of violent crimes be tried and sentenced in adult courts? Are current punishments for violent crimes too harsh, too light, or just about right? Whites were much more likely than blacks to favor three-strikes laws and trying young people as adults, to believe parole boards should be more strict, and to believe that punishments for violent crimes are too light.
To find out whether and how racial attitudes and beliefs influence punitive attitudes, Johnson developed a measure of perceived racial bias in the justice system and various measures of racial prejudice. Perceived racial bias was calculated from responses to three questions about confidence that the police, prosecutors, and judges treat blacks and whites equally.
Racial prejudice was measured in three ways. To calculate “racial resentment,” respondents were asked to agree or disagree with six propositions (shortened and paraphrased here):
1. Members of other ethnic groups have overcome prejudice and succeeded; blacks should do the same without special favors.
2. Blacks in recent years have gotten less than they deserve.
3. Government officials pay less attention to requests and complaints from black than from white people.
4. Blacks who receive welfare could get along without it if they tried.
5. If blacks would only try harder, they’d do as well as whites.
6. Generations of slavery and discrimination created conditions that make it hard for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
To calculate “negative affect” in general attitudes to black people, respondents were asked two questions: How often have you felt sympathy for blacks? How often have you admired blacks?
Finally, to calculate “racial stereotypes,” respondents were asked to characterize on a 1–10 scale as accurate or inaccurate four negative descriptions of black people: as lazy, aggressive or violent, preferring to live on welfare, and complaining.
The analysis took account of demographic characteristics of the survey respondents, including age, sex, income, education, and place of residence, and of other characteristics such as political beliefs, fear of crime, and having a relative or friend imprisoned. When all these characteristics were taken into account, two factors stood out. For blacks, perceptions of racial bias in the system were the major distinguishing characteristic. For whites, it was racial resentment. The other two measures of prejudice—negative affect and racial stereotypes—had discernible effects that were dwarfed by the power of racial resentment.
It might in some sense seem encouraging that whites are less likely than in earlier times to harbor beliefs about racial inferiority or about race-based negative characterizations of laziness, violence, and querulousness. Their displacement by racial resentment is no cause for celebration. The consequence in some ways is more pernicious, especially in light of what we now know about statistical discrimination, colorism, Afro American feature bias, and implicit bias. Widespread beliefs that blacks are racially inferior have been replaced by beliefs that the conditions of life that lead some black people to crime are their own fault and they deserve whatever punishment they get. Put differently racial resentments provide a powerful basis for lack of sympathy for people caught up in the legal system. If disproportionate numbers of blacks are arrested for drug dealing and for violent crimes, they’ve no cause to complain.
Devon Johnson summed up where things stand:
Given the association between race and crime in political discourse, in media accounts, and in the minds of many whites, it is probable that racial prejudice will continue to play a significant role in whites’ support for punitive policies for some time. Moreover, in light of the … inability of those in privileged positions to perceive racial discrimination in the administration of justice (or their unwillingness to acknowledge it), it is unlikely that blacks’ cynicism toward the criminal justice system will markedly improve in the short term. (2008, 205)
That seems right. The explanation for whites’ attitudes can be found in the history of American race relations.
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WHY ARE AMERICAN PENAL POLICIES SO HARSH?
The question usually asked is narrower than that: How can we explain national differences in imprisonment rates? None of the commonly offered answers provides much illumination.
Crime rates and trends are not the explanation. Crime trends have been much the same throughout the Western world since 1970: rises through the early or mid-1990s and declines since. There is no relationship, however, between crime rates and imprisonment rates. Since 1973, in the face of similar crime rate trends in most Western countries, imprisonment rates increased five-fold in the United States and doubled in England and Spain, but declined by more than half in Finland, held steady in the rest of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium, and zigzagged in France and Italy (Tonry 2007). In Canada, where since 1980 crime trends have closely paralleled those in the United States, the imprisonment rate has fluctuated around 100 per 100,000 for, fifty years (Webster and Doob 2007).
Nor is public opinion the answer. In the English-speaking countries at least, penal policies and imprisonment rates vary enormously, but public opinion has stayed much the same. Majorities of the public believe crime rates are rising when they are falling. Large majorities believe judges are too lenient, on the basis of mistaken underestimates of the severity of punishments. The sentences citizens say they believe are appropriate are typically less severe than those judges actually impose. When citizens are asked whether they prefer more punitive policies or increased investment in rehabilitative programs, majorities usually prefer rehabilitation (Roberts et al. 2003).
David Garland in his 2001 book, The Culture of Control, attributes toughened penal policies in England and America to a number of conditions of “late modernity.” These include the limited capacities of governments to affect crime rates, the destabilizing effects of economic globalization, increasing population diversity, increased sensitivity to risks of all kinds, and increased vulnerability to crime of privileged segments of the population. The result, he suggests, is a proliferation of “expressive” policies meant more to reassure the public and show that government is doing something, anything, than to reduce crime.
The insuperable difficulty for the analysis is that, if Garland is correct, all Western countries should have experienced steeply rising imprisonment rates and steadily harshening penal policies. The developments he describes happened everywhere; imprisonment rates and policy trends, however, diverged dramatically.
Recent research looks deeper and tries to explain imprisonment trends and penal policy differences in terms of such factors as income inequality, citizens’ perceptions of the legitimacy of governmental institutions, citizens’ trust in each other and in government, the strength of the welfare state, and the structure of government. All these things matter. Moderate policies and low imprisonment rates are associated with low levels of income inequality, high levels of trust and legitimacy, strong welfare states, professionalized as opposed to politicized criminal justice systems, and consensual rather than conflictual political cultures (Lappi-Seppälä 2008). For each of those factors the United States falls at the wrong end, the end associated with more punitive policies and practices, but that’s the beginning, not the end, of the search for explanations. The question is, Why is the United States at the wrong end of every distribution?
WHY ARE HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS SO WEAK IN THE UNITED STATES?
That is the $64,000 question. American politicians, and therefore ultimately American citizens en masse, do not much care about the human rights of opponents in the War on Terror. And, as I demonstrated earlier, Americans do not much care about the human rights of their domestic enemies in the wars on drugs and crime.
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Research on public opinion about punishment tells a subtle story about the effects of conservatives’ efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system. Tom Tyler (2006) and others have demonstrated the importance of the perceived legitimacy of legal institutions in the eyes of people they affect. People who believe that police and judges treat them impartially and fairly, consider their interests, and listen to their stories are more likely to respect legal institutions and to accept adverse decisions as appropriate than are people who believe they are treated unfairly. Neither Hegel nor Dworkin would be surprised by this. A different conception of legitimacy instructs that citizens who believe institutions operate fairly and honestly are more likely to respect them in general than are people who do not believe these things. Duhh!
The unhappy consequences of a half-century’s effort to undermine the legitimacy of the courts can be seen when Americans’ attitudes are compared with those of people in other countries. In both the United States (Roberts et al. 2003) and the Netherlands (Elffers and de Keijser 2006), for example, public opinion research has examined whether citizens believe judges sentence too severely, too leniently, or just right, and what sentences citizens say they themselves would impose in particular cases. The findings from English-speaking countries show that large majorities of citizens believe judges sentence too leniently. However, when the sentences citizens say they would impose are compared with those judges do impose, the comparison almost always shows that judges impose longer sentences than citizens say they would. Citizens’ beliefs about sentences are not based on the ordinary run-of-the-mill cases that make up the bulk of court dockets, but on aberrant or special cases that are distinctive or sensational enough to attract media attention. As a result most people systematically underestimate the sentences typical offenders receive.
A parallel but more nuanced body of research in the Netherlands produces similar and also strikingly different findings. Do Dutch citizens believe judges sentence too leniently? Yes. Do judges know that citizens believe this? Yes.
So far the story is the same, but then it diverges. Do Dutch judges impose sentences less severe than Dutch citizens would? Yes. Dutch citizens, unlike American citizens, are right: judges are less severe than citizens say they would be.
But now the corker: Do Dutch citizens believe judges should impose harsher sentences in order to reflect citizens’ preferences? No. That last finding is unimaginable in the United States. For decades voters have been electing politicians who run against “lenient” judges.
How do Dutch citizens explain this finding, which to Americans is bizarre? It’s easy. They trust their judges. They say that it is the judge’s job to consider the facts of cases, consult the relevant laws, and then in good faith make decisions he or she believes to be right. For a judge to do anything else would be to make a decision he or she believed to be wrong, and that’s incompatible with what an honest, conscientious judge is supposed to do.
Why would Americans have such a different outlook? To a large extent it is because conservative politicians’ efforts for fifty years to delegitimize judges have sunken in. And partly it is because many American judges and prosecutors are blatantly political. Dutch judges, like those of most developed countries, are apolitical career civil servants who are selected meritocratically. Most American judges are chosen in partisan political elections, and for limited terms. Many run for office spending campaign funds donated by lawyers who practice before them, and most of the rest are appointed in partisan political ways. It doesn’t take a great deal of cynicism for Americans to believe that what prosecutors and judges do is influenced by their political self-interest and the possible effects of their decisions on future electoral or other political prospects.
If judges cannot be trusted to handle cases brought against alleged terrorists and criminals, then other agencies of government must do it. If alleged terrorists and offenders and drug dealers and illegal immigrants and welfare recipients are evil, the embodiment of immoral behavior, then of course their interests need not be taken into account in deciding how to address the threats they represent.
All of us in our personal lives want to be treated with equal respect and concern in proceedings that affect us and our interests and our loved ones and their interests. The paranoid style, however, has too often led policy makers to forget that their enemies are human beings and to abandon the sympathy and mutual respect that distinguish human beings from animals. From that forgetting come Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and three-strikes laws and life sentences without the possibility of parole for children.
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Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate’s examination of attitudes toward capital punishment concludes that those fundamentalists “who have a rigid and moralistic approach to religion and who imagine God as a dispassionate, powerful figure who dispenses justice are more likely to harbor punitive sentiments toward offenders” (2005, 304). A slight but fascinating article based on a representative survey of Oklahoma City residents showed that Protestant conservatives viewed nearly all crimes as “very wrong” and thus did not differentiate among them in terms of seriousness (Curry 1996, 462). This finding goes a long way toward explaining why traditional ideas about proportionality in punishment are irreconcilable with many modern three-strikes, mandatory minimum, and life without the possibility of parole laws.
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Substantial evidence exists that public anxiety about crime and support for severe policies in the late twentieth century was shaped by politicians’ and media preoccupation with crime, rather than vice versa (e.g., Beckett 1997). Politicians and the media in the 1970s through the 1990s often did not respond to public anxiety, but provoked it in order to win elections, sell papers, and attract viewers and listeners. Table 6.1 summarizes survey results of Americans’ views about the most important problems facing the country over a quarter century beginning in 1984. Crime ranked high only during the mid-1990s, when candidates competed to endorse the toughest anticrime policies and legislatures rushed to enact three-strikes, truth-in-sentencing, mandatory minimum, and Megan’s laws. After the anticrime politicking stopped, crime dropped to the bottom of citizens’ concerns. A similar pattern appears for drugs. The bigger picture, however, is that for a time the public did become concerned, whatever its reasons for doing so. As a result it is commonly said that current policies are as they are because the public demanded them. If that were true in the early and mid-1990s, it is true no longer.
Contemporary public opinion cannot be invoked as justification for the injustices of the American justice system. Crime and drugs no longer rank high as matters of public concern. Between 2002 and 2008 only 1 to 3 percent of Americans named crime or drugs the most important problem facing the nation. In the twenty-first century concerns about crime or drugs rank far below the economy, unemployment, terrorism, health care, and education.
Crime has not featured prominently in an American presidential election since 1988, and in recent years has only occasionally been a major element in state and local elections. The flurry of adoptions of unprecedentedly severe sentencing laws ended in the mid-1990s. Many states have since enacted amendments mitigating some effects of these laws.
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Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment
By Meda Chesney-Lind and Marc Mauer
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Yet when asked by the Gallup organization which approach they favored for bringing crime rates down in this country—education and jobs to address “the social and economic problems that lead to crime,” or “more prisons, police, and judges” to deter crime—we find a different picture of the American mood. In the periodic surveys taken between 1989 and 2000, between one-half and two-thirds of the respondents favored education and jobs, and between one-quarter and two-fifths favored more prisons, police, and judges. When given policy choices, the American public favors prevention over enforcement. As noted by Di-Iulio et al., “even in ‘get tough’ or ‘do justice’ periods there has been substantial public support for efforts to keep offenders from turning to crime and to keep ex-offenders from returning to it.”55
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The irony of public policy in this area is that there exists substantial support for a more compassionate approach to these problems. Law enforcement leaders have recognized for some time that criminal justice responses alone are not likely to solve the nation’s drug problem. In a 1996 poll, nearly three-fourths of police chiefs indicated that mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession had been only somewhat effective or were not really the answer to the drug problems in their communities. More than half (59 percent) believed that sentencing drug users to court-supervised treatment programs was more effective than sending them to prison or jail.2
Other polls have shown that public support for treatment is strong as well. A 2001 ABC News poll found that Americans, by nearly a three-to-one margin, prefer treatment programs over incarceration for first- and second-time drug offenders.3
These sentiments are supported by research documenting that treatment is a cost-effective response to addiction. Every dollar invested in treatment results in savings between $2.50 and $7 in reduced costs of crime and social services. Treatment is also more cost-effective than punishment-oriented drug policies, with estimates that treatment for cocaine addiction is seven times more effective than domestic law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction, and twenty-three times more effective than source-country activities.4
At the national political level, however, these polls and data are ignored by policy makers in favor of reliance on punishment. Such approaches play on the fears of many Americans that they will be victimized by individuals with drug and alcohol problems, despite the general support for treatment.
This fear fuels discrimination and creates the impression that substance abusers are not worthy of compassion or assistance. These attitudes make individuals with alcohol and drug problems ashamed and afraid to come forward for help, thereby perpetuating the problem. But as General Barry McCaffrey, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has pointed out about the “war on drugs” metaphor, addicted individuals need to be helped, not defeated.5
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The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander
Once in the Oval Office, Bush stayed on message, opposing affirmative action and aggressive civil rights enforcement, and embracing the drug war with great enthusiasm. In August 1989, President Bush characterized drug use as “the most pressing problem facing the nation.” 93 Shortly thereafter , a New York Times /CBS News Poll reported that 64 percent of those polled— the highest percentage ever recorded— now thought that drugs were the most significant problem in the United States. 94 This surge of public concern did not correspond to a dramatic shift in illegal drug activity, but instead was the product of a carefully orchestrated political campaign. The level of public concern about crime and drugs was only weakly correlated with actual crime rates, but highly correlated with political initiatives, campaigns, and partisan appeals. 95
The shift to a general attitude of “toughness” toward problems associated with communities of color began in the 1960s, when the gains and goals of the Civil Rights Movement began to require real sacrifices on the part of white Americans, and conservative politicians found they could mobilize white racial resentment by vowing to crack down on crime. By the late 1980s, however, not only conservatives played leading roles in the get-tough movement, spouting the rhetoric once associated only with segregationists. Democratic politicians and policy makers were now attempting to wrest control of the crime and drug issues from Republicans by advocating stricter anticrime and antidrug laws— all in an effort to win back the so-called “swing voters” who were defecting to the Republican Party. Somewhat ironically, these “new Democrats” were joined by virulent racists, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, which announced in 1990 that it intended to “join the battle against illegal drugs” by becoming the “eyes and ears of the police.” 96 Progressives concerned about racial justice in this period were mostly silent about the War on Drugs, preferring to channel their energy toward defense of affirmative action and other perceived gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the early 1990s, resistance to the emergence of a new system of racialized social control collapsed across the political spectrum. A century earlier, a similar political dynamic had resulted in the birth of Jim Crow. In the 1890s, Populists buckled under the political pressure created by the Redeemers, who had successfully appealed to poor and working-class whites by proposing overtly racist and increasingly absurd Jim Crow laws. Now, a new racial caste system—mass incarceration— was taking hold, as politicians of every stripe competed with each other to win the votes of poor and working-class whites, whose economic status was precarious, at best, and who felt threatened by racial reforms. As had happened before, former allies of African Americans— as much as conservatives—adopted a political strategy that required them to prove how “tough” they could be on “them,” the dark-skinned pariahs.
The media bonanza inspired by the administration’s campaign solidified in the public imagination the image of the black drug criminal. Although explicitly racial political appeals remained rare, the calls for “war” at a time when the media was saturated with images of black drug crime left little doubt about who the enemy was in the War on Drugs and exactly what he looked like. Jerome Miller , the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, described the dynamic this way: “There are certain code words that allow you never to have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those. . . . So when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” 37 Another commentator noted, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” 38 Indeed, not long after the drug war was ramped up in the media and political discourse, almost no one imagined that drug criminals could be anything other than black.
A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education . Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. 39 These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black.
There is no reason to believe that the survey results would have been any different if police officers or prosecutors—rather than the general public— had been the respondents. Law enforcement officials, no less than the rest of us, have been exposed to the racially charged political rhetoric and media imagery associated with the drug war. In fact, for nearly three decades, news stories regarding virtually all street crime have disproportionately featured African American offenders. One study suggests that the standard crime news “script” is so prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists. In that study , 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American. 40
Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate. 41 The quotation commonly attributed to Nietzsche, that “there is no immaculate perception,” perfectly captures how cognitive schemas—thought structures— influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted. 42 Studies have shown that racial schemas operate not only as part of conscious, rational deliberations, but also automatically— without conscious awareness or intent. 43 One study, for example, involved a video game that placed photographs of white and black individuals holding either a gun or other object (such as a wallet, soda can, or cell phone) into various photographic backgrounds. Participants were told to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot the target. Consistent with earlier studies, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed. 44 This pattern of discrimination reflected automatic, unconscious thought processes, not careful deliberations.
Most striking, perhaps, is the overwhelming evidence that implicit bias measures are disassociated from explicit bias measures. 45 In other words, the fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks, even though you do not believe you do and do not want to. 46 In the study described above, for example, black participants showed an amount of “shooter bias” similar to that shown by whites. 47 Not surprisingly, people who have the greatest explicit bias (as measured by self-reported answers to survey questions) against a racial group tend also to have the greatest implicit bias against them, and vice versa. 48 Yet there is often a weak correlation between degrees of explicit and implicit bias; many people who think they are not biased prove when tested to have relatively high levels of bias. 49 Unfortunately, a fairly consistent finding is that punitiveness and hostility almost always increase when people are primed— even subliminally— with images or verbal cues associated with African Americans. In fact, studies indicate that people become increasingly harsh when an alleged criminal is darker and more “stereotypically black”; they are more lenient when the accused is lighter and appears more stereotypically white. This is true of jurors as well as law enforcement officers. 50
Viewed as a whole, the relevant research by cognitive and social psychologists to date suggests that racial bias in the drug war was inevitable, once a public consensus was constructed by political and media elites that drug crime is black and brown. Once blackness and crime, especially drug crime, became conflated in the public consciousness, the “criminalblackman,” as termed by legal scholar Kathryn Russell, would inevitably become the primary target of law enforcement. 51 Some discrimination would be conscious and deliberate, as many honestly and consciously would believe that black men deserve extra scrutiny and harsher treatment. Much racial bias, though, would operate unconsciously and automatically— even among law enforcement officials genuinely committed to equal treatment under the law.
Whether or not one believes racial discrimination in the drug war was inevitable, it should have been glaringly obvious in the 1980s and 1990s that an extraordinarily high risk of racial bias in the administration of criminal justice was present, given the way in which all crime had been framed in the media and in political discourse. Awareness of this risk did not require intimate familiarity with cognitive bias research. Anyone possessing a television set during this period would likely have had some awareness of the extent to which black men had been demonized in the War on Drugs.
Those who claim that mass incarceration is “just like” Jim Crow make a serious mistake. Things have changed. The fact that a clear majority of Americans were telling pollsters in the early 1980s— when the drug war was kicking off— that they opposed race discrimination in nearly all its forms should not be dismissed lightly. 60 Arguably some respondents may have been telling pollsters what they thought was appropriate rather than what they actually believed, but there is no reason to believe that most of them were lying. It is more likely that most Americans by the early 1980s had come to reject segregationist thinking and values, and not only did not want to be thought of as racist but did not want to be racist.
This difference in public attitudes has important implications for reform efforts. Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow will fall on deaf ears and alienate potential allies if advocates fail to make clear that the claim is not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term. Race plays a major role— indeed, a defining role— in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility— a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.
All racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference. As noted earlier, many whites during the Jim Crow era sincerely believed that African Americans were intellectually and morally inferior. They meant blacks no harm but believed segregation was a sensible system for managing a society comprised of fundamentally different and unequal people. The sincerity of many people’s racial beliefs is what led Martin Luther King Jr. to declare , “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” The notion that racial caste systems are necessarily predicated on a desire to harm other racial groups, and that racial hostility is the essence of racism, is fundamentally misguided. Even slavery does not conform to this limited understanding of racism and racial caste . Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich, and black slavery was the most efficient means to that end. By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed. Preoccupation with the role of racial hostility in earlier caste systems can blind us to the ways in which every caste system, including mass incarceration, has been supported by racial indifference— a lack of caring and compassion for people of other races.
Yet another notable difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that many African Americans seem to support the current system of control , while most believe the same could not be said of Jim Crow. It is frequently argued in defense of mass incarceration that African Americans want more police and more prisons because crime is so bad in some ghetto communities. It is wrong , these defenders claim, for the tactics of mass incarceration— such as the concentration of law enforcement in poor communities of color, the stop-and-frisk programs that have proliferated nationwide, the eviction of drug offenders and their families from public housing , and the drug sweeps of ghetto neighborhoods— to be characterized as racially discriminatory, because those programs and policies have been adopted for the benefit of African American communities and are supported by many ghetto residents. 70 Ignoring rampant crime in ghetto communities would be racially discriminatory, they say; responding forcefully to it is not.
This argument , on the surface, seems relatively straightforward, but there are actually many layers to it, some of which are quite problematic. To begin with, the argument implies that African Americans prefer harsh criminal justice policies to other forms of governmental intervention, such as job creation, economic development, educational reform, and restorative justice programs, as the long-term solution to problems associated with crime. There is no evidence to support such a claim . To the contrary, surveys consistently show that African Americans are generally less supportive of harsh criminal justice policies than whites, even though blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. 71 This pattern is particularly remarkable in that less educated people tend to be more punitive and blacks on average are less educated than whites. 72
The notion that African Americans support “get tough” approaches to crime is further complicated by the fact that “crime” is not a generic category. There are many different types of crime, and violent crime tends to provoke the most visceral and punitive response. Yet as we have seen in chapter 2, the drug war has not been aimed at rooting out the most violent drug traffickers, or so-called kingpins. The vast majority of those arrested for drug crimes are not charged with serious offenses, and most of the people in state prison on drug charges have no history of violence or significant selling activity. Those who are “kingpins” are often able to buy their freedom by forfeiting their assets, snitching on other dealers, or becoming paid government informants. Thus, to the extent that some African Americans support harsh policies aimed at violent offenders, they cannot be said to support the War on Drugs, which has been waged primarily against nonviolent , low-level offenders in poor communities of color.
The one thing that is clear from the survey data and ethnographic research is that African Americans in ghetto communities experience an intense “dual frustration” regarding crime and law enforcement. As Glenn Loury explained more than a decade ago, when violent crime rates were making headlines, “The young black men wreaking havoc in the ghetto are still ’our youngsters’ in the eyes of many of the decent poor and working-class black people who sometimes are their victims.” 73 Throughout the black community, there is widespread awareness that black ghetto youth have few, if any, realistic options , and therefore dealing drugs can be an irresistible temptation . Suburban white youth may deal drugs to their friends and acquaintances as a form of recreation and extra cash, but for ghetto youth, drug sales— though rarely lucrative— are often a means of survival, a means of helping to feed and clothe themselves and their families. The fact that this “career” path leads almost inevitably to jail is often understood as an unfortunate fact of life, part of what it means to be poor and black in America.
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Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It
By Lisa Bloom
And yet evidence of racial bias is all around us, though a yawning perception gap divides whites and blacks on our understanding of it. About three times as many 101 blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants , in public schools, and by the health care system. And even when looking at the criminal justice system, where injustices against African Americans have been long known and well documented , mainly it is blacks who see racial discrimination and whites who do not. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 102 twice as many blacks as whites say that African Americans are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts.
In fact, astonishingly, a 2011 study 103 by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School found that “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”
Some accuse African Americans of “playing the race card,” of seeing bias where none exists. So how can we get to the truth as to the extent of racial bias that still remains in America? To measure it today, researchers can’t bring in a bunch of subjects and straightforwardly ask them whether they are bigots, because everyone will simply deny it. So like Richard LaPiere before them, social scientists have gotten creative. For example, in a 2012 poll that was ostensibly about the presidential election, after a long list of political questions, the Associated Press snuck in some questions about the characteristics of people of color. When asked to associate adjectives with different racial groups, the majority called African Americans violent, lazy, and irresponsible 104 —the worst stereotypes about blacks that have lingered since the days of slavery, when the system required degradation and dehumanization to justify enslavement. Yet surely these very same people, if contacted individually and not anonymously, would strongly deny harboring any racial biases.
This disturbing poll result is consistent with the results of clever, cheat -proof tests of our subconscious attitudes developed and refined by social scientists over the last fifteen years and administered internationally.
In polls, overwhelming majorities of blacks 148 believe that African Americans are treated differently by police and the courts. Only half as many whites agree. Unfortunately, the complaints of African Americans are borne out by the research, which reveals that disparity at every turn.
Consider juries, which should be drawn randomly from the community, and which we’d hope would reflect the diversity of the local population. In reality, that’s rarely the case. In most places in the United States, African Americans in court are highly unlikely to have a jury of their peers. Of the six women who served on the Zimmerman jury, for example, five were white. The sixth, Maddy, identifies as Hispanic . When the jury was empaneled, many commentators felt that the lack of African Americans on the panel in this racially-charged case was unfortunate, but that it “just happened,” the luck of the draw. But as it turns out, it’s the norm for minorities, especially African-American men, to be underrepresented on American juries, as a direct result of laws barring them from jury service. Most states prohibit felons from jury duty and even voting—usually for life. Those with a criminal record, even veterans, even those who did their time years ago and have been contributing, taxpaying citizens ever since, cannot serve on juries. More than two million African Americans cannot vote or be jurors because of felon disenfranchisement laws— four times higher than the rest of the population.
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Race to Incarcerate
By Marc Mauer
Kindle Locations 646-667
A society’s level of incarceration may be related to a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. The findings of the international victimization surveys tell us that of sixteen nations surveyed in regard to public attitudes on sentencing, the United States registered as the most punitive. When asked what sentence was most appropriate for a 21-year-old second-time burglar who had stolen a television set, a high of 56 percent of U.S. respondents chose prison, compared to an average of 34 percent for all nations, and in striking contrast to support of just 20 percent, 19 percent and 12 percent in Denmark, Finland, and France respectively.25
The survey’s authors also find that changes in policy can lead to increased support for alternatives to incarceration. After Finland introduced a formal community service sentencing option, public support for such penalties increased markedly, such as the 46 percent support for the burglary case above (compared to a level of 20 percent in the U.S.).
How these cultural attitudes affects rates of imprisonment is a complex process, but one factor that has been identified is the relative diversity of the population. A study of incarceration rates in the one hundred richest nations concluded that “levels of imprisonment increased with population heterogeneity.”26 So, attitudes conditioned by divisions along racial, ethnic, language, or religious lines are likely to contribute to differing rates of imprisonment, controlling for other factors.
The practical impact of these dynamics can be seen in some European nations. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, it is not unusual to participate in policy discussions regarding the “appropriate” level of incarceration in a society, with scant regard for crime rates. For example, beginning in the mid-1970s, officials in Finland introduced changes in criminal justice policy designed to lower the national rate of incarceration out of concern that their use of imprisonment was abnormally high by Scandinavian standards. By U.S. standards, this type of approach is a bit jarring, since public dialogue on imprisonment all but assumes that the only critical variable is the level of crime. Clearly, though, this assumption is far from universal.
While the analysis of comparative incarceration rates is subject to debate, what seems clear is that the issue is far more complex than conventional political or public discourse often suggests. The degree to which a society engages in prison-building, far from illustrating a direct correlation between crime and incarceration, is subject to a host of decisions made within and outside the criminal justice system.
Kindle Locations 678-704
The first decades after World War II represented a modern peak in the influence of the rehabilitative ideal on the corrections system. The country was emerging from a deadly but victorious conflict; the “baby boom” that followed in its wake brought on an era of hopefulness and optimism about the future. With the United States escaping from the war relatively unscathed on the home front, visions of an “American Century” became enticing to many business and political leaders.
This emerging economic might and sense of rebirth influenced public attitudes on social policy in a variety of ways. An expanding economic pie potentially meant greater goods and services, and allowed for more compassionate and generous public policy responses to social problems. In regard to crime and justice, this laid the groundwork for growing support for a broader acceptance of the goal of rehabilitation. We can see this perhaps most clearly in public attitudes on the death penalty. While the death penalty has been employed since the colonial period, it reached its peak of use in modern times during the Depression, with as many as 199 persons being executed annually by 1935. By the 1950s, though, the pace of executions had slowed to less than half that rate, and by 1963, there were just 23 executions.1
This decline does not appear to have reflected any dramatic drop in the number of murders; rather, it seems to reflect a growing public unease with the use of the ultimate punishment. Survey data show declining support for use of the death penalty in the postwar era, reaching a low of 42 percent support in 1966.2 A newly energized abolitionist movement gained strength as well, motivated in part by such celebrated cases as those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Caryl Chesman in California.
As public opposition mounted, legal challenges to executions began to develop as well, so that by the late 1960s, executions all but ceased as it became clear that only a Supreme Court decision would resolve the issue. Thus, in 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the court ruled that the Georgia death penalty statute was cruel and unusual in its application—and, because the same infirmities existed in the statutes of other states, they were all in effect declared unconstitutional. The decision removed all inmates from Death Row and halted death sentences nationally, but only until the court ruled in 1976 that statutes which defined more specifically the circumstances under which death could be imposed were permissible.
The postwar move toward abolition of capital punishment was accompanied by support for rehabilitation within prison as well. As late as 1968, a Harris poll showed that 48 percent of the public thought that the primary purpose of prison was rehabilitation and that 72 percent believed the emphasis should be on rehabilitation.3
During the 1960s, though, this support for rehabilitation was challenged from two very distinct directions. From the left came a broad critique of the concept of rehabilitation in an inherently coercive institution such as a prison. Numerous liberal critics wondered whether the nature of personal transformation required a voluntary desire for change, and they questioned whether it could be accomplished under conditions of forced confinement. This critique, of course, applied not only to prisons but to other institutions as well, particularly mental hospitals.
Kindle Locations 2239-2258
One final problem associated with statistical analyses of the role of race in sentencing relates to the underlying assumptions behind sentencing policies themselves. In many jurisdictions around the country, minorities constitute two thirds or more of the defendants in many offense categories. To what extent are “get tough” sentencing policies a reflection of the race and ethnicity of those likely to be affected by such policies? As the hue of the defendant population changes, do legislators and judges set different sentencing standards?
In the realm of policy development, recent research suggests that this is precisely the case. A key study examined the degree of punitiveness expressed by Americans as a function of the extent to which they perceived crime as a “black” problem. That is, if crime is viewed as disproportionately committed by blacks, does that translate into greater support for harsher responses to crime? Among whites, the authors found strong support for this hypothesis, concluding that “racial typification of crime is a significant predictor of punitive attitudes toward crime,”26 controlling for other factors. And certainly, there is no reason to believe this finding is any less true among white policymakers than among the white population overall.
We can see this as well in white support for the death penalty. One national survey concluded that “White support for the death penalty in the United States has strong ties to anti-black prejudice. For white people living in an all-white county, racial prejudice emerges as the strongest predictor of white death penalty support. . . . For their counterparts in more [racially] integrated counties, this effect is more than doubled.”27
These dynamics translate directly into the world of sentencing and incarceration policy, as seen in a study that examined changes in state prison populations between 1971 and 1991.28
The study concluded that by 1990, controlling for a variety of factors, the size of a state’s black population was an even stronger predictor of the prison population than the rate of violent crime. The authors suggest that while these findings may reflect large-scale bias within the criminal justice system, they may also be a result of harsher sentencing policies and a greater commitment to prison construction in states with larger black populations.
Kindle Locations 2284-2286
The point here is not whether one believes that marijuana is a dangerous drug or not; rather, it is how the public perception of the appropriate societal response was shaped by the composition of the user population. As whites became a larger proportion of the user population and replaced blacks in the public image of the pot user, public policies changed rapidly in a more understanding and less punitive direction.
Kindle Locations 2300-2311
Who are the individuals arrested for these offenses? Drunk drivers are predominantly white males, representing 78 percent of the arrests for this offense as of 1990. They are generally charged as misdemeanants and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Persons convicted of drug possession, though, are disproportionately low-income, and African American or Hispanic; they are usually charged with felonies and frequently sentenced to incarceration. Overall, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment; for drug offenders, though, the response has primarily involved greater use of law enforcement and incarceration. At the same time, while drug treatment remains popular and available for middle-class drug users, it is in short supply for low-income persons. We have already seen how sentencing practices in Western Europe are less harsh for some offenses than in the United States. In comparing the United States with Scandinavian nations, for example, many skeptics contend that the relatively humane sentencing policies of Scandinavia are due to the fact that these societies are more homogeneous. Precisely! Communities that feel a sense of commitment to their members are able to see the humanity of offenders despite their criminal behaviors and to see the potential for positive change in their lives.
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Race, Incarceration, and American Values
By Glenn C. Loury
Kindle Locations 253-263
The entire political effect of criminal disenfranchisement laws is impossible to calculate. But it is telling that the states that disenfranchise the largest number of citizens also have some of the most draconian criminal codes, and it is not entirely clear in which direction the causal arrows run. It may well be that it is precisely because their electorates are skewed that they enact increasingly harsh laws that reinforce the skew. This may be especially true to the extent that the criminal law is enforced in a racially biased or disproportionate way. Angela Behrens’s recent work argues that perceived “racial threat” is a major variable in predicting a state’s disenfranchisement practices. She concludes:
The racial composition of state prisons is firmly associated with the adoption of state felon disenfranchisement laws. States with greater non-white prison populations have been more likely to ban convicted felons from voting than states with proportionally fewer nonwhites in the criminal justice system.
Conversely, states with a small proportion of African-American prisoners are most likely to abolish ex-felon voting restrictions.
Despite this discouraging reality, the tenor of the debate over felon disenfranchisement has taken a remarkable turn. After a generation of unsuccessful litigation against disenfranchisement laws, politics has made some dramatic strides. Recent public opinion surveys find that over 80 percent of Americans believe that ex-offenders should regain their right to vote at some point, and more than 40 percent would allow offenders on probation or parole to vote. A conservative Republican governor of Alabama signed legislation making it easier for ex-offenders to regain their voting rights. Several other states have made the restoration of voting rights automatic upon completion of an offender’s sentence or within a short period of time thereafter.