Public on Justice System: Fair, but Still Too Soft

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

Should the main function of the U.S. criminal justice system be to punish criminals for their wrongdoing and remove them from society, or to rehabilitate them to become honest and productive citizens? Data from Gallup’s most recent annual survey on crime* reveal that the majority of Americans currently say that the U.S. criminal justice system is kinder and gentler than it should be. However, the American public also generally believes that the criminal justice system is fair, and feels attacking social and economic problems is a better approach to preventing crime than improving law enforcement.

 Getting Tough

Americans were asked if the U.S. criminal justice system is "too tough, not tough enough, or about right" in handling crime. A firm majority (65%) said that the criminal justice system is "not tough enough" on crime. Twenty-six percent said the system is "about right," and just 6% said it is "too tough."

Although a majority of Americans feel that the criminal justice system isn’t tough enough, the percentage feeling this way has dropped significantly over the past decade. In March 1992, more than 8 in 10 Americans (83%) said the system isn’t tough enough. By August 2000, the percentage had dropped to 70%.

That shift in attitudes could be related to the significant drop in violent crime that has occurred in the last 10 years. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1992 there were approximately 48 violent crimes for every 1,000 people aged 12 and over. In 2002, this number had dropped to approximately 23 crimes per 1,000 people.

In the recent poll, women (70%) were more likely than men (59%) to say that the criminal justice system isn’t tough enough. Interestingly, this was not the case in 2000. In 2000, men’s and women’s opinions on the criminal justice system were almost identical.

 Best Way to Deter Crime

Although Americans tend to believe that the criminal justice system should be tougher on crime, they don’t necessarily feel that strengthening law enforcement is the best way to lower the crime rate. When given a choice between allocating more money toward: 1) "attacking the social and economic problems that lead to crime through better education and job training," or 2) "deterring crime by improving law enforcement with more prisons, police, and judges," 69% of respondents chose the former option, while 29% chose the latter.

The percentage of Americans who feel that attacking social and economic problems is the best way to deter crime is as high as it has ever been since Gallup began asking the question in 1989. In August 1994, when concern about crime was at historically high levels, the percentage favoring tougher law enforcement reached a high of 42%, but still a majority were in favor of concentrating on the root causes of crime.

 Is the System Fair?

Gallup also asked respondents if they think the criminal justice system is "very fair, somewhat fair, somewhat unfair or very unfair" in its treatment of accused criminals. As a whole, most Americans think the criminal justice system is either "very fair" (18%) or "somewhat fair" (48%). Twenty-two percent see the system as "somewhat unfair" and 10% feel it is "very unfair." Men and women have fairly similar views on this question.

 Bottom Line

Although a majority of Americans still want to see a tougher criminal justice system, overall they are less in favor of this than they were a decade ago. Fewer Americans think that the criminal justice system isn’t tough enough, and more feel that the best way to prevent crime is to address social and economic issues.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 6-8, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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