Law-and-Order Politics, Public-Opinion Polls and the Media

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, considerable political rhetoric has focused on the need to get tough on crime. Justification for this hard-line approach has been the public's apparent concern about rising crime rates and its increasing dissatisfaction with criminal sentencing. In this paper, we consider characteristics both of the measurement of public opinion and of the influences upon public opinion that ma), contribute to the depiction of a fearful, punitive community. In particular, we identify sources of bias in the methods and contexts of opinion-polling that promote a distorted representation of the discrepancy between community expectations of sentencing and the practices of the judiciary. We argue that the practices of pollsters, politicians, and media combine to create a self-sustaining obstacle to considered community discussion of crime and criminal sentencing.


The present trend towards law-and-order politics has emerged at a time when governments, weakened by unstable economies, have embraced the rhetoric of 'get tough on crime' (Braithwaite, 1999). A topic high on the public agenda, crime has become a useful foil in the battle against using unemployment and budget deficits. Crime dominates news stories and demands a substantial share of government spending. It also has the capacity to influence decisions about where people live and how they vote. Moreover, the level of injustice and human suffering that crime inflicts can sometimes generate a fear so pervasive and intense that the public is left feeling powerless. Politicians use this fear to considerable advantage. Policies such as mandatory prison terms, life sentences for three-time felons, and support for the death penalty are offered as signs of political strength, and crime control becomes a mechanism by which governments seek to retain political power.

Justification for these and other harsh sentencing practices is found in the popular rationale of a punitive public 'red up' with crime and increasingly dissatisfied with the criminal justice system (Tonry, 1999). Opinion polls, both in Australia and overseas, consistently report the public's concern that the courts have become too lenient in their approach to punishment, and that this 'too soft' attitude is responsible for increasing crime rates (e.g., Abramovitch, Peterson-Badali, Delmedico, & Freedman, 1997; Indermaur, 1987; Roberts & Doob, 1984, 1990). Given these sentiments, it is not surprising that the polls also report that crime has replaced issues such as economic policy and unemployment as the 'most important' problem people now face (Flanagan, 1996). What is surprising, however, is that these beliefs exist despite any appreciable rise in the crime rates of many western nations over the past 25 years (Australian Institute of Criminology, 1999; Dolinko, 1999; Mattinson & Mirrlees-Black, 2000). The change, it seems, has not been in crime rates per se, but in the perception of crime. And while this perception may not mirror what is actually known about crime, it plays an important role in terms of shaping public opinion and influencing the decisions people make about how they live their lives (Doob & Sprott, 1999). In this paper, we consider characteristics both of the measurement of public opinion and of the influences upon public opinion that may contribute to the depiction of a fearful, punitive community.

Crime, Public Opinion and Public Policy

When responding to opinion polls--the primary source of our information about community perceptions of crime--people consistently overestimate (a) the level of crime within their community (Flanagan & Maguire, 1990; Roberts & Stalans, 1998); (b) the proportion of that crime involving violence (Matka, 1990); (c) the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime (Haghighi & Sorenson, 1996; Weatherburn, Matka, & Lind, 1996); and (d) the number of criminals who become repeat offenders (Doob & Roberts, 1983; Roberts & White, 1986). …