Social inequality linked to public support for harsh criminal justice policy

Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2016

A recent study suggests that social inequality is directly linked to public support for increasingly harsh criminal justice policy in the UK, despite falling crime rates.

Carolyn Côté-Lussier, of the department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, carried out the research as part of her PhD thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research found that people’s attitudes towards criminals are shaped not only by the crime committed but also by the perceived low social status of criminals. They are stereotyped as poor and uneducated, which is often equated with being callous and untrustworthy, according to Côté-Lussier’s study, published in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

The study suggests that social inequalities could contribute to even greater public demand for harsh criminal justice policies, making it difficult for governments to tackle unsustainably high prison populations. It also sheds new light on evidence suggesting that the effects of harsh criminal justice policies have been felt most strongly by vulnerable populations, such as those with low incomes, visible minorities, individuals experiencing residential instability and persons with mental health problems. Data suggests that the over-representation of these individuals in prisons might actually be perceived as justified because of stereotypes linking low social status to a perceived evil and callous disposition.

“Public opinion is often a key issue in considering reforms in criminal justice policy,” says Côté-Lussier. “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, those living in 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 study and other research bring into question the source of public opinion about crime and justice.”

The article points out that criminal justice policies are costly in both social and economic terms, and governments may face public opposition to attempts to reduce prison populations. In the UK, the prison population reached capacity—80,000—in 2006 and, by 2013, had grown to over 94,000. It is among the European countries with the highest levels of public punitiveness. Meanwhile, 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 Canadian government has announced that they intend to review and challenge laws and reforms introduced by the previous government’s “tough on crime” political agenda. This may lead to policies that reduce social structural inequalities, which could ultimately decrease public demand for harsh criminal justice policies.

The article concludes with three policy recommendations:

  1. Efforts could be made to change the way in which individuals perceive and feel about criminals. Political and advocacy group campaigns should aim to attenuate punitive trends by countering stereotypical perceptions of criminals, particularly for non-violent offenders or those in pre-trial detention.
  2. Given 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 programs, undergoing treatment and receiving counselling and community service.
  3. Policies that reduce social inequality, such as improving educational attainment, could ultimately decrease public demand for harsh criminal justice policies and could have the added benefit of reducing crime and the victimization of vulnerable populations.

Media inquiries

Mila Roy
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Cell.: 613-762-2908

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