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:
Cite This Page: