The Social Correlates of Punitiveness toward Criminals: A Comparison of the Czech Republic and Florida

By Costelloe, Michael T.; Chiricos, Ted et al. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Social Correlates of Punitiveness toward Criminals: A Comparison of the Czech Republic and Florida


Costelloe, Michael T., Chiricos, Ted, Burianek, Jiri, Gertz, Marc, Maier-Katkin, Daniel, Justice System Journal


The United States and the Czech Republic have become more punitive in their responses to criminal behavior Criminal justice policy may reflect popular opinion to some degree. Using survey data collected in Florida in 1997 and in the Czech Republic in 1998, we identify significant predictors of punitive attitudes for individual citizens of both countries. Our results show that while it is difficult to compare the two countries directly, we do find some common predictors of punitiveness. OLS regression analysis indicates that punitive attitudes for both countries are shaped by fear of crime generally, as well as by more crime-specific concerns. Further, our study finds that antipathy toward those perceived as "other" is the strongest predictor of punitiveness in the Czech Republic. The same underlying process may be at work in Florida where conservatism is a consistent predictor of punitive attitudes.

This article examines citizens' attitudes about the punishment of criminals in the Czech Republic and in Florida and, in particular, the social correlates of support for harsh punishments. The choice of these two jurisdictions is principally the result of relationships that have developed between faculty at Florida State University and at Charles University in Prague that have produced a variety of collaborative efforts, including the administration of similar surveys in the two venues.

Though quite different in many respects, there are common elements between the Czech Republic and Florida that may have some relevance for punitive attitudes toward crime and criminals. For example, both jurisdictions have seen dramatic increases in prison populations in recent years. Between 1990 and 2001, Florida's inmate population grew by more than 60 percent (Florida Department of Corrections, 2002) while that of the Czech Republic grew by more than 50 percent (International Centre for Prison Studies, 2002). In addition, both jurisdictions are widely recognized as major transit points for drug trafficking, with southwest Asian heroin passing through the Czech Republic (Central Intelligence Agency, 2002) and cocaine and marijuana through Florida.

Both Florida and the Czech Republic have some history of racial and ethnic tension. Florida was a slave state that was formally segregated until less than fifty years ago. Blacks (12 percent) and Hispanics (14 percent) comprise substantial minorities in the state and in some regions afford significant economic and political competition for the predominant white population. There is some evidence that fear of crime in Florida is related to the perception of blacks and Hispanics living nearby (Chiricos, McEntire, and Gertz, 2001). In the Czech Republic, ethnic differences played a role in the "velvet divorce" between Czechs and Slovaks (Leff, 1997), and similar ethnic issues have led to civil war in Yugoslavia and to increasing xenophobia in neighboring Germany and Austria.1 Native Czechs comprise only about 80 percent of the population, and there is a visible presence of Roma (gypsies) that generates clear ethnic hostility and resentment. One recent public opinion poll showed that 91 percent of Czech and Slovak respondents expressed antipathy toward the Romany people (Leff, 1997).

Finally, there are similar "anomic" uncertainties that characterize the social conditions of both jurisdictions. In the Czech Republic, the "velvet revolution" and the transition to capitalism brought with it many of the opportunities but also the insecurities of market-driven economies.2 In place of the predictable and relatively secure context of state-managed socialism, there now exists competitive individualism, wherein some will inevitably fail and inequality will inevitably increase (Adam, 1996; Leff, 1997). In the United States, including Florida, corporate downsizing, and immersion in the "global economy," has meant the loss of employment or substantially reduced incomes for millions of workers and managers at all levels of the economy (New York Times, 1996). …

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