Are Americans Still Tough on Crime?

By Robert VerBruggen

Between Eric Holder's announcement that the Department of Justice will cut back on mandatory-minimum sentencing, a New York judge's decision to seriously curtail stop-and-frisk, and the movement against Stand Your Ground laws, some folks are suggesting that America's tough-on-crime era might be coming to an end.

Crime is largely handled by people who face political pressure -- governors, legislators, and even many judges are elected -- so public opinion will play a major role as this trend unfolds. Fortunately, the General Social Survey asks a question that allows us to track changes in these attitudes: "In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?"

Here are the results dating back to the 1970s. There is an "about right" answer too, but it makes the graph hard to read, so I left it off.

Clearly, there's been a significant downward trend lately -- but most Americans still want courts to be harsher, and relatively few want to head in the opposite direction.

Because incarceration is often seen as a racial issue, it's also informative to break out the respondents into whites and blacks:

There's a consistent racial gap in these attitudes -- but even today, about half of blacks think courts should be even harsher, and only about a quarter think courts should be less harsh.

The changing attitudes on this issue give prison reformers an opportunity that they did not have previously, but they will still have to tread lightly.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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