Riding the Punitive Roller Coaster

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.

The general directions of change over time will not be especially surprising to readers who have studied trends in criminal law, sentencing, and incarceration rates.  (See, for instance, my article on incarceration trends in three midwestern states.)  Punitiveness fell from the early 1950’s through the mid-1960’s, then rose steadily through the early 1980’s.  Punitiveness was up and down from then until the late 1990’s, but remained consistently higher than it had been in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Since the late 1990’s, punitiveness has generally been in decline and seemed by 2006 finally to have fallen back to about the level of the early 1950’s.

It is interesting and helpful to see this evidence of movement in public punitiveness.  Ramirez further considers the extent to which a range of other variables correlate with punitiveness over time.

To my mind, the three big questions about punitiveness are these: (1) are public attitudes in this area more an input to, or an output from, the political process; (2) to what extent is punitiveness, either consciously or unconsciously, an expression or manifestation of racial animus; and (3) is punitiveness more instrumental or symbolic?

Although Ramirez’s research does not provide definitive answers to any of these questions, at least as I have framed them, he does offer some suggestive observations at least as to the first two.  (I have blogged a number of times about the third question, e.g., here.)

On the relationship between public attitudes and the political process, Ramirez finds a striking correlation between public punitiveness and the punitiveness of presidential statements on crime.  (Interestingly, as Ramirez measured it, presidential punitiveness reached its post-1950 high not in a Republican administration, but in the first term of the Clinton administration.)  Here is what Ramirez concludes about the impact of the president:

A single [punitive] statement by the president estimated to increase punitive sentiment by an immediate .06 points.  Punitive sentiment will increase another .06 points during the next year.  Moreover, it will continue to shift . . . until it changes a total of .16 points.  (347-48)

As Ramirez points out, it is troubling that the “ups and downs of punitive sentiment are driven by . . . political factors such as the construction of crime by political leaders.  The framing of crime as a problem of a permissive system . . . increase[s] public demand for punitive policies.  [This is] normatively unappealing . . . because it suggests the public can be led into supporting unnecessary and costly policies [even when they are not justified by] objective crime conditions.”  (357)

On the other hand, Ramirez did not find punitiveness to be wholly disconnected from “objective crime conditions.”  For instance, “a point increase in the homicide rate is estimated to increase punitive sentiment directly by .39 points.”  (348)  Additionally, increases in drug usage also show “an immediate and long-term relationship with punitive sentiment.”  (349)

What about race and punitiveness?  Much research has indicated that blacks tend to be less punitive than whites, and Ramirez also found that to be true at least back to the early 1970’s.  (352)  (Women were less punitive than men over the same time period, although the sex gap is less pronounced than the race gap.)

The “racial threat” theory supplies one potential explanation for the punitiveness gap.  This theory posits increasing white demand for social control, including through the criminal-justice system, as the racial balance in a community shifts (or is perceived to shift) in a black direction.  Previous research has found some empirical support for this theory, although the results have not been unequivocal.  (See my posts here and here.)  In any event, Ramirez’s data do provide support for racial-threat effects.  Indeed, a “shift in public perceptions that racial integration is increasing results in an immediate .29 point increase in punitive sentiment.”  (349)  This, too, is a troubling finding, for it suggests another way (along with political grandstanding) in which punitive attitudes may result from factors that do not seem properly part of the policy-making process.

Ramirez’s article is “Punitive Sentiment,” 51 Criminology 329 (2013).