Chris Uggen's Blog: crime, fear, and public opinion

Thursday, October 20, 2005

crime, fear, and public opinion

some comments on the last post raised the issue of fear of crime and the ucr crime rate. here are a few figures i've been playing with to track these trends. first, compare the general social survey fear of crime indicator with the ucr index offense rate and the percentgage believing that crime is the most important problem. according to the gss, the percentage of people afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods dropped from about 45 percent in 1994 to 30 percent in 2001. 1994 was the year of bill clinton's crime bill debates, so you see a big spike in the percentage naming crime as the most important problem facing the nation.

many criminologists and politicians believe that the public is more punitive today than ever before, but that's not quite true. the chart below shows responses to three standard punitiveness indicators: the perception that courts are not harsh enough, that too little money is spent combating crime, and support for the death penalty. all peaked in 1994 but have declined significantly since then.
so maybe times are changing. people seem to feel less afraid of street crime in their everyday lives today than they did a decade ago, as both police and victimization data suggest they should. although a majority still favor "tougher" crime policy, the percentage has declined significantly over the past decade. i read these trends as providing an opening for reintegrative efforts. more people seem ready to view law violators as fallible human beings who will eventually desist from crime rather than as irredeemable monsters. if so, it creates a policy opportunity to reorient correctional practices toward the clear-headed goal of maximizing public safety.


At 4:49 PM, Anonymous ryan said...

Chris, perhaps you are right that we’re gearing up for a new discourse on crime policy. But do you think the trend must still dip below 50% before that happens? The trend may be downward, but relative levels are still pretty high. Also, is it that more people feel law violators are fallible, or that people feel we’ve finally figured things out, and thus the status quo suffices? My guess is that budgetary issues might better dictate correctional reform than public opinion, although the recent past doesn't necessarily support me there (i.e., the 1980s). Thanks for the info!

At 8:32 PM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

It would be interesting to see the age distribution of the "afraid to walk at night" question. The age groups most afraid to walk down the street at night might be same age groups with low levels of personal victimization.

That may be a function of the dis-connect between the social reality of crime and the media construction of crime, meaning some persons or groups are afraid of crime when their odds of being victimized are quite low…. ………

OR certain groups might have low levels of victimization because they aren’t on the streets at night!

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous chris said...

ryan, i agree that what jeff and i call the "punishment consensus" is still firmly in place. still, the trend seems to open the window a crack. in my experience, voting is one of the issues that helps people see "felons" as human beings, but i'm probably a bit more optimistic than most.

punk, age is a strong positive correlate of fear and a (way-) strong negative correlate of victimization. but i've argued that old folks are actually pretty rational about this -- the perceived consequences of getting mugged at 80 (or, errr...41) are far more dire than at 20.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Daniel said...


As a criminal law student I wrote a paper (The Fear of Crime and the Influence of the Mass Media) and conducted research on this matter.

I am very interested in your opinions on this subject.


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