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Public support for harsh criminal justice policy linked to social inequality

Date:
January 21, 2016
Source:
London School of Economics (LSE)
Summary:
Social inequality is directly linked to public support for increasingly harsh criminal justice policy in the UK despite falling crime rates, a study has found. People's attitudes to criminals, say researchers, are not just shaped by the crimes they have committed but also by their perceived low social status.
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Social inequality is directly linked to public support for increasingly harsh criminal justice policy in the UK despite falling crime rates, an LSE study has found.

Research found that people's attitudes to criminals are not just shaped by the crimes they have committed but also by their perceived low social status. Criminals are stereotyped as poor and uneducated which most people equated with being callous and untrustworthy, according to the study due to be published in an American Psychological Association journal called Psychology, Public Policy and Law.

Dr Carolyn Côté-Lussier, assistant professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, carried out the research for her PhD thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She says that this link between thinking that criminals have a low social status and feeling angry and punitive toward crime, suggests that growing social inequality and failing to address disadvantage could actually contribute to even greater public demands for harsh criminal justice policy making it difficult for governments to tackle unsustainably high prison populations.

It also brings new light to evidence suggesting that the devastating effect of harsh criminal justice policies have been felt most strongly by those in the margins of society, such as the poor, the homeless, ethnic minorities and those with mental health problems. The research suggests that the over-representation of low status individuals might actually be perceived as justified because of stereotypes linking low social status to a perceived evil and callous disposition.

She commented: "Public opinion is often a key issue in considering reforms in criminal justice policy. In the US and UK, public calls for harsher punishment remain high despite growing prison populations and decreasing crime rates over the past 20 years. This public opinion remains relatively constant regardless of what is really happening on the ground. In Canada, for example, provinces that punish more harshly, in terms of total and length of prison sentences, were not more confident in the criminal justice system than those living in less punitive provinces. This and other research puts into question the source of public opinion about crime and justice."

The report points out that criminal justice policies are costly, both in social and economic terms, and governments may face public opposition to attempts to reduce prison populations. In the UK the prison population reached its capacity of 80,000 by 2006 and grew to over 94,000 by 2013. It is among the European countries with the highest levels of public punitiveness. Certain parts of the US have already stepped back from their previous "tough on crime" political agendas. Although the Canadian criminal justice system is significantly less expansive than that of the US, the new Liberal government has announced that they intend to review and challenge laws and reforms introduced by the previous government's "tough on crime" political agenda.

The report concludes with three policy recommendations:

  • Efforts could be made to change the way in which individuals perceive and feel about criminals. Political and advocacy group media campaigns should aim to attenuate punitive trends by countering stereotypical perceptions of criminals, particularly for nonviolent offenders or those in pre-trial detention.
  • The findings suggest that the emotions people have about criminals, resulting from their stereotypical perceptions, are associated with desires to exclude but not actually punish them. This could justify implementing penal policy reforms providing alternatives to prison for non-violent and young offenders, such as training programmes, receiving treatment and counselling and community service.
  • Policies that reduce social inequality, such as improving educational attainment, could ultimately decrease public demands for harsh criminal justice policies and could have the added benefit of reducing crime and the victimization of vulnerable populations such as those with low incomes.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by London School of Economics (LSE). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Carolyn Côté-Lussier. The Functional Relation Between Social Inequality, Criminal Stereotypes, and Public Attitudes Toward Punishment of Crime.. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/law0000073

Cite This Page:

London School of Economics (LSE). "Public support for harsh criminal justice policy linked to social inequality." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 January 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121093421.htm>.
London School of Economics (LSE). (2016, January 21). Public support for harsh criminal justice policy linked to social inequality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121093421.htm
London School of Economics (LSE). "Public support for harsh criminal justice policy linked to social inequality." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121093421.htm (accessed July 30, 2016).

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