Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal : "Redeemability" and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes

Shadd Maruna, University of Cambridge
Anna K. King, University of Cambridge

An alleged "punitive public" is blamed for the spread of harsh "law and order" sentencing and correctional policies in the United Kingdom and the United States. The psychology of these punitive attitudes has been the subject of some of the most famous works in social theory (e.g., Durkheim, Mead, Garland), but little empirical research (relative to this body of theoretical work). Several studies have sought to link punitive attitudes to attribution style and/or lay theories of crime. The hypothesis here is that those who believe criminal acts are the result of freely chosen and willful behavior are more likely to be punitive than those who feel crime is the result of external circumstances and constraints. In this analysis, we test this assukmption but add in a further dimension of "redeemability" (or beliefs about the ability of deviants to change their ways). Our hypothesis is that this dimension, rather than one's views about the origins of crime, is critical in explaining support for highly punitive criminal justice policies. We explore this possibility in a postal survey of residents of London and two rural English towns.

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Updated 05/20/2006