Public Perceptions of Criminal Justice Policy: Does Victimization Make a Difference?

Article excerpt

In this paper we examine public perceptions of criminal justice policy and public attitudes toward victims. We are particularly interested in exploring the relationship between the use of social science data and the adoption of public policy affecting victims of crime. To do this we analyze a representative sample of over 450 residents of the Chicago metropolitan area in 1983. The specific issues examined include attitudes toward rape (e.g., whether caused by victim's behavior), prosecution of marital rape, plea bargaining, sentencing of predatory offenders, and the relative importance and efficacy of rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution as goals of punishment. Overall, the results suggest that age and education have the most important influence on public attitudes regarding these criminal justice policies. Surprisingly, victimization status does not emerge as a salient predictor of criminal justice perceptions. We conclude with a call for greater use of social science surveys as information input into local and federal decision making on criminal justice policy.

Over the past 15 years, the criminal justice and social service systems have given increasing attention to the victims of crime, especially victims of violent crime (e.g., sexual assault, domestic violence). The victims' movement, which was bolstered by President Reagan's Presidential Task Force on Victims and by the creation of the National Organization of Victim's Assistance, identified and highlighted th&rights and needs of victims. Indeed, the movement has been very successful in achieving two interrelated objectives:

1. Identifying victims' special rights and needs in the criminal justice system (e.g., filing a victim impact statement with a judge, the right to a separate waiting room where the victim will not have contact with the offender).

2. Encouraging government to adopt legislation which serves the needs of victims.

The movement and the accompanying laws/policies served to highlight the special status of victims. The assumption was (and is) that the criminal justice system needs to afford special status to victims.

The political movement was also accompanied by a growing social psychological literature which also focused on the special status of victims (Bard & Sangrey, 1979; Burgess & Holmstrom, 1974; Cohn & Rich, 1981; Ellis, Atkeson, & Calhoun, 1981; Friedman, Bischoff, Davis, & Person, 1982; Kilpatrick, Veronen, & Resick, 1979; Rich & Stenzel, 1980; Symonds, 1980). Victims are seen as being vulnerable to a broad range of mental health-related problems. In addition to financial loss, a great deal of attention has been given to the victim's susceptibility to: insomnia, grief, loss of appetite, fear, reoccurring nightmares, and a general inability to function. The strength, frequency, and duration of the symptoms will vary from person to person; at times, the "stress-related reaction" may be delayed and be triggered by a seemingly unrelated set of events. Previous medical history is not a good predictor of whether or not a victim displays the symptoms. Literature points to the fact that there are short- and-long term symptoms, some of which may last for a lifetime (Bard & Sangrey, 1979).

The sociological literature has focused on the systemic factors which contribute to victimization (Hindelang, Gottfredson, & Garofalo, 1978) and to a "second wound" which victims may experience due to societal insensitivity to their plight (Karmen, 1984). In addition, this literature has explored the issue of victim blaming; why do we tend to blame the victims for their status (e.g., the way she dressed may have encouraged the assault), and for the problems they are experiencing (Chelmisky, 1981; Rich & Stenzel, 1980).

Public policy makers and professional associations have responded to the political movement and the research-related literature by codifying the victim's status. …