In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Opinion, Crime and Justice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Understanding Public Opinion
  • Media, Public Opinion, and Politics
  • Fear of Crime
  • Law and Justice
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Punishment and Corrections
  • Capital Punishment
  • Punitiveness
  • Penal Populism and Penal Policy
  • Race and Public Opinion
  • Religion and Public Opinion
  • Victims and Offenders

Criminology Public Opinion, Crime and Justice
Natasha A. Frost, Carlos E. Monteiro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0138


With the emphasis placed on democratic values in contemporary society, much attention has been paid to the role of public opinion in the formation of public policy generally and criminal justice policy specifically. The punitive turn in criminal justice policy, epitomized by policies such as “three strikes” laws, truth-in-sentencing, and mandatory minimums, is often attributed in part to demand for harsher criminal justice responses from an increasingly punitive public. It has been argued that public opinion, known to be both largely uninformed and frequently misunderstood, both indirectly and directly affects policy. It is known, for example, that politicians and policymakers look to polls and other measures of public opinion to gauge the mood of the public or the popularity of proposed crime policy. In some states, public opinion sometimes literally drives criminal justice policy, such as when the public actually votes for criminal justice policies presented as ballot initiatives (California’s notorious three-strikes law, for example, was endorsed by the public through voter referenda). In other states the criminal justice policymaking process is largely insulated from public influence and opinion. Indeed, there are a number of competing theses about the nature of the relationship between the media, public opinion, and public policy. The media is certainly the source for most of the information the public processes about crime, and research has consistently found that the media, with its focus on stories that emphasize the most unusual and extreme (yet least common) types of crime, offers a decidedly distorted picture of the nature and extent of the crime problem. Much of what people think they know about crime is thus not particularly accurate. Members of the public then form opinions about criminal justice policy issues on this less-than-optimal understanding of crime. Misconceptions aside, public opinion data from a variety of sources offer policymakers a window into the views of their constituents. Some have argued that punitive criminal justice policy is simply evidence of “democracy at work,” with policymakers simply responding to the desires of their constituents. Others have argued that policymakers take advantage of, or exploit, public opinion to gain electoral advantage—pandering to an ill-informed public. Still more argue that policymakers actually use the media to manipulate (indeed manufacture) the very opinion that they then use to justify their popular, yet often ineffective, criminal justice policies.

General Overviews

There are a number of influential works on the relationship between public opinion, crime, and criminal justice. This section focuses on works explicitly related to public opinion around crime and justice issues, while Understanding Public Opinion focuses on works that address public opinion more broadly. Public opinion around crime and justice has been the subject of a number of full-length books, edited collections, and comprehensive survey articles. The most prolific writer in this area has been the criminologist Julian V. Roberts, who has authored numerous influential books and several survey articles on public opinion and criminal justice. Though slightly outdated, Roberts 1992 is a classic and will remain so until a similarly comprehensive survey article on the topic is published. Roberts 2004 is an important survey article on public opinion around youth justice. Roberts and Stalans 1998 provides a more concise (and slightly less comprehensive) survey that introduces the readers to the research (and the debates) in this area. Roberts and Stalans 1998 is short and direct and therefore ideal for classroom use. Similar but more focused survey articles appear under Punishment and Corrections and Crime, Politics, and Criminal Justice Policy. Hindelang 1974 and Stinchcombe, et al. 1980 are both classics in the area of crime, justice, and public opinion. Relying on current public opinion research (including some of the major data sources [see Data Sources] on American public opinion), Flanagan and Longmire 1996, and Peter D. Hart Research Associates 2002 offer analyses of fairly contemporary public opinion around justice issues. When used in conjunction with more current work such as Flanagan and Longmire 1996 or Peter D. Hart Research Associates 2002, Hindelang 1974 and Stinchcombe, et al. 1980 are ideal for gaining perspective on the advances made in crime and public opinion research over the past few decades and demonstrate just how far that research has come. Juxtaposition of these works and their findings also provides an interesting window into changes in public opinion on matters related to crime and justice. Wood and Gannon 2009 provides a recent edited (and eclectic) collection of essays on public opinion across an array of topics relevant to crime and justice. The various works of Roberts and colleagues, and the edited collection of from Wood and Gannon 2009 are notable also for their international focus.

  • Flanagan, Timothy J., and Dennis R. Longmire, eds. 1996. Americans view crime and justice: A national public opinion survey. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    The chapters in this edited collection offer results and commentary on findings from the 1995 National Opinion Survey of Crime and Justice—a comprehensive survey of a representative sample of Americans. Includes contributions on public views of police, courts, sentencing, juvenile offending, and on more contentious topics such as the death penalty, gangs, gun control, and substance abuse.

  • Hindelang, Michael J. 1974. Public opinion regarding crime, criminal justice, and related topics. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 11:101–116.

    DOI: 10.1177/002242787401100202

    A widely cited classic article that chronicled the sources of data on public opinion related to issues of crime and justice and reported on some of the key findings related to opinion on crime and justice issues.

  • Peter D. Hart Research Associates. 2002. Changing attitudes toward the criminal justice system. Washington, DC: Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

    A summary of public opinion research conducted on behalf of the Open Society Institute that demonstrates that public opinion toward crime and justice has changed over the past few decades but has not changed demonstrably as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Reports that the American public is more concerned with addressing the underlying causes of crime and is less punitive in its orientation to crime than it had been previously.

  • Roberts, Julian V. 1992. Public opinion, crime, and criminal justice. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 16. Edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A survey article that introduces readers to research on public opinion as it pertains to criminal justice, and then reviews the evidence based on findings of that research. An excellent resource for those seeking an overview of research in this area.

  • Roberts, Julian V. 2004. Public opinion and youth justice. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 31, Youth crime and youth justice: Comparative and cross-national perspectives. Edited by Michael Tonry, and Anthony N. Doob. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Roberts examines twenty years of survey data from several Western nations and finds that most of these individuals share a common misperception about juvenile crime and justice issues. Roberts also investigates public attitudes toward rehabilitation and the public’s willingness to support less punitive reforms for juvenile offenders.

  • Roberts, Julian V., and Loretta J. Stalans. 1998. Crime, criminal justice, and public opinion. In The handbook of crime and punishment. Edited by Michael Tonry, 31–57. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise yet comprehensive introduction to literature related to crime, criminal justice, and public opinion. An exceptional resource for classroom use or for those seeking an overview.

  • Stinchcombe, Arthur L., Rebecca Adams, Carol A. Heimer, Kim L. Scheppele, Tom W. Smith, and D. Garth Taylor. 1980. Crime and punishment: Changing attitudes in America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Through reviewing time-series and cross-sectional data from several sources, the authors examine the dynamics of public opinion formation and explore the numerous connections between trends in crime, media attention to crime, and public reactions to crime. The discussions highlight the changing attitudes toward crime and crime policies, and the variation in public opinion that exists between residents in America’s major urban centers and residents in other parts of the country.

  • Wood, Jane, and Theresa Gannon. 2009. Public opinion and criminal justice. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    Key reading for students, scholars, policymakers, or anyone interested in the formation of public opinion and the various forces that influence criminal justice policy. The chapters were authored by a number of internationally recognized scholars who tackle issues such as the social psychology of public opinion on crime and the myths and realities of public opinion around various contentious issues.

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