Public support for punitive criminal-justice policies has risen and fallen repeatedly since 1951, Mark Ramirez demonstrates in an extensive new analysis of historical polling data. Although some commentators characterize the punitive attitudes of Americans as a constant, Ramirez shows that the strength of these attitudes has varied over time.
Measuring public punitiveness has proven difficult. Simply asking people whether they are punitive seems unlikely to produce helpful results, given the uncertainty and abstraction of the term. On the other hand, asking about support for any specific criminal-justice policy might or might nor produce answers that are reflective of more general attitudes. Intuitively, for instance, support for the death penalty would seem a good indicator that a person would also support a range of other policies that are typically characterized as punitive, such as three-strikes laws, but it is hard to rule out the possibility that the death penalty is a unique issue in the minds of many Americans; support may be due, say, to religious beliefs or particular feelings regarding the crime of murder, rather than more general attitudes toward crime and criminals.
Ramirez attempted to overcome this difficulty by aggregating survey responses to several different criminal-justice policy questions. He identified 24 different survey questions that were asked by national pollsters at least twice between 1951 and 2006. Many of the questions related to the death penalty, but others touched on three-strikes laws, drug enforcement, law-enforcement spending, imprisonment, and sentencing more generally. Although the levels of support for different punitive policies varied, they tended to move in unison over time, suggesting that there really is some shifting, underlying attitude that drives support for all of the different policies.
Based on the survey data, Ramirez compiled a year-by-year punitiveness index.