Violent Crime and Punitiveness: An Empirical Study of Public Opinion

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Marquette University Law School

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Marquette Law Review

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Evidence suggests that the public favors tough punishment for individuals who have been convicted of violent crimes, but why? In order to better understand the factors that contribute to punitive attitudes toward violent crime, or “V-punitiveness,” we analyze data from a recent survey of Wisconsin voters as a part of the Marquette Law School Poll. In sum, respondents generally supported prison terms for individuals convicted of violent crime, but this support was not unwavering and unconditional. While analysis of these data identified several variables that correspond with higher levels of Vpunitiveness, neither fear of violent crime nor personal experiences were among them. Instead, V-punitiveness seems more closely tied to broader sets of social beliefs regarding individual responsibility, traditional values, and the like. Our results suggest that tough responses to violent crime may be supported more for expressive than instrumental reasons. Thus, efforts to change public policy in this area may need to contend with expressive considerations. If reformers wish to change minds about legal responses to violent crime, instrumental arguments based simply on “what works” in reducing violent recidivism may come up short.


Marquette Law Review, Vol. 103, No. 3 (2020): 1035-1071. Permalink.