Influences on State Punitiveness: An Examination of Crime Rates, Public Attitudes, and Political Ideologies

Keri B. Burchfield, The Pennsylvania State University
Lisa L. Miller, The Pennsylvania State University
R. Barry Ruback, The Pennsylvania State University

According to deterrence theory, high crime rates should lead to more punitive laws, in order to prevent future crime. An alternative explanation, the "democracy-at-work" thesis, explains punitive laws as a function of public attitudes towards criminals. For example, states with citizens who believe the courts are not treating criminals harshly enough should be the states with the most punitive laws. A third hypothesis is that underlying political ideologies, not crime rates or specific public attitudes, drive punitiveness.

To date, little empirical research has been done exploring the relationship between crime rates, public opinion about crime, political ideology and punitive policies. This study tests whether, at the state level, crime rates, specific public attitudes, and political orientations affect punitive crime control policies directly, and how their effects might be mediated through other factors.

Political ideology is measured using traditional indicators (e.g., outcomes of state elections) and possible explanatory structural indicators (e.g., Southernness). Punitiveness is measured as an index consisting of the presence/absence of four policies: three strikes, death penalty, sexual predator civil commitment, and juvenile waiver. Crime rates come from the UCR, opinion data come from the General Social Survey (GSS), and demographic and other control variables are taken from census data.

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Updated 05/20/2006