The era of punitive punishment, in which campaign promises to get tough on crime lead to ever-stricter laws and harsher sentencing guidelines, may become a victim of the economic downturn. That’s the implication of a newly published New York Timesstory, which described the state of California’s attempt to save money by reducing its prison population.
But how did the “lock them up and throw away the key” ethos come to dominate America’s approach to crime and punishment in the first place? Criminologists James Unnever of the University of South Florida-Sarasota and Francis Cullen of the University of Cincinnati weigh three different theories in the latest issue of the journal Criminology.
They conclude that while a variety of beliefs and emotions undergird the electorate’s support for policies that emphasize punishment over rehabilitation, the most glaring issue is one few people want to discuss: race.
“Racial resentments are inextricably intertwined in public punitiveness,” write the researchers, who describe a process in which racially prejudiced people meld their fear of crime with their resentment of a group they dislike. This results in an “inability of Americans to empathetically identify with those who will be caught up into mass-incarceration movements,” since the people being imprisoned are those they instinctively dislike anyway.
Noting that state and federal prison populations in the U.S. have increased seven-fold since the early 1970s, Unnever and Cullen tested three theoretical models that attempt to explain this shift in public attitude. They used detailed data from the 2000 National Election Survey, which includes interviews with 1,620 Americans in which they described their views on a variety of social issues.
Specifically, the researchers looked at the Escalating Crime-Distrust Model, which states people perceive that crime rates are increasing, and they’ve lost their faith in the police and court system to protect them; the Moral Decline Model, in which people view crime as a symbol of societal disintegration and support punishment “as a conduit for re-establishing a sense of social cohesion;” and the Racial Animus Model. They measured respondents’ racial resentment by their responses to four statements, including the assertion that black people don’t deserve “special favors.”
“Our findings reveal that punitive sentiments can emerge from diverse sources,” they write. A sense that crime is getting out of control (which is reinforced by so many nightly local newscasts) compels people to support harsh punishment of perpetrators, as does the belief that society is in a state of moral decline.
But even after taking those two factors into account, racial animus is “one of the most salient and consistent predictors” of support for strict punishment for criminals. To the researchers, this suggests “a prominent reason for the American public’s punitiveness — including the embrace of mass imprisonment and the death penalty — is the belief that those disproportionately subject to these harsh sanctions are people they do not like: African Americans.”
The research “clearly documents that public opinion about crime and its control is driven by racial animus,” the researchers write. They add that, for decades (perhaps since the race riots of the 1960s), when many Americans think about crime, “the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse.”
That’s not the mental image of a kid who made some bad choices and can be rehabilitated. Rather, it’s the reinforcement of a pre-existing set of prejudices. (Unnever and Cullen do not consider it a coincidence that black Americans “are generally not supportive of a punitive approach, especially capital punishment.”)
It wasn’t until the very end of the health care debate, when protesters shouted racial slurs at pro-reform members of Congress, that the mainstream media considered the idea that antipathy to expansion of health coverage might have a racial component. Perhaps the next time crime re-enters the public policy debate, this elephant in the room can be identified in a timelier manner.
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