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Incarceration Nation

Interview with Peter Enns, Executive Director of the Roper Center and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World

Peter K. Enns, Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, is the author of the new book Incarceration Nation, which describes how shifting public opinion on issues of crime and punishment led to the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has called the book “a methodological tour de force.” Peter recently spoke with Kathleen Weldon about what data from the Roper Center’s polling archives led him to understand about the intersection of public opinion and the justice system.

On the value of the Roper Center’s archive of polling data:

I couldn’t have written this book without Roper Center data. Although people have been studying the rise of mass incarceration in the US for a long time, it took going back to public opinion data from the 1950's to understand how the public’s punitiveness has shifted over time. This over-time perspective showed that conventional wisdom missed an important part of the story. Public opinion matters immensely in the U.S. criminal justice system.

On how public punitiveness varies with question wording:

A question that’s been asked a lot is if the courts are too harsh or too lenient, and typically you get an extreme majority on the punitive side saying too lenient. Given a choice of whether prisons should be more punitive or rehabilitative, you get more support for the rehabilitative option. An important point in the book, however, is that both of these questions tell the same story about opinion change.

On polling evidence for overall changes in public punitiveness:

Pretty much regardless of how you ask survey questions about crime and punishment, the percent supporting the punitive option shifts in tandem. So if you look at a single point in time, you see wide variation in public support depending on the specific policy in question or how it’s asked. But if you look at the same questions asked repeatedly, the support for the punitive option changes in parallel across all the questions. An over-time analysis shows that the public’s punitiveness shifts in important and systematic ways.

On measuring public punitiveness over time without a single, longstanding trend question:

The basic idea is to take all survey questions that measure punitiveness that have been asked at multiple time points, and then look at how responses shift over time. Because responses to these questions shift largely in parallel, it is possible to create an index of the public’s punitiveness that covers the entire time span. For people who study public opinion over time, using multiple survey questions to generate an over-time measure has become the bedrock standard.

Public punitiveness over time, as measured by an index of 33 polling questions (asked 381 different times), charted against changes in the U.S. incarceration rate. From Incarceration Nation.

Public punitiveness over time, as measured by an index of 33 polling questions (asked 381 different times), charted against changes in the U.S. incarceration rate.
From Incarceration Nation.

On the relationship between public opinion and the incarceration rate:

Most of the existing research argues that public opinion and mass incarceration are unrelated. Some have even argued that if politicians were more attentive to the public, there would be less punitive policies. Others have argued that politicians lead the public. Incarceration Nation shows, however, that it is the other way around. Politicians and the criminal justice system responded to an increasingly punitive public through the 1960's, 70's, 80's, and early 90's.

Just as important, the criminal justice system has responded to more recent declines in the public’s punitiveness. We’re seeing bipartisan calls for reform of the criminal justice system. We’re in an incredibly politically polarized environment so when you see politicians coming together on a particular issue, it makes sense that the public’s been moving in this direction. Political leaders are shifting to align with changing public opinion.

barbed wire

See more iPOLL questions about prisons and incarceration.

Featured datasets on crime and justice

As crime rates and concerns about crime increased in the 70's and 80's, pollsters increasingly turned their attention to the topic. One of the first datasets to ask multiple questions on criminal justice issues was the 1970 Gallup/Newsweek Crime and Justice poll, which asked Americans about their perception of the causes of crime and the fairness of the justice system.

1980 Research and Forecasts, Inc./Figgie International poll delved deeply into Americans’ personal experiences with and fears of crime, as well as their perceptions of the police, actions taken to prevent becoming a crime victim, beliefs about the causes of crime and other topics.

The 1990 LA Times Los Angeles Criminal Justice System poll offered a fascinating glimpse into perceptions on the justice systems by those involved in it. Samples of municipal and superior court judges, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers and police officers provided their perspectives on prosecution, sentencing, the image of their department, and more.

The 1995 Texas A&M/Sam Houston State University Poll: Crime in America poll asked a national sample a broad range of questions about crime, with a particular focus on juvenile offenders and gang issues.

The 2000 Law and The Media Survey for the Center for Survey Research & Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut asked detailed questions about perceptions of the fairness, integrity and efficacy of the justice system. The poll also asked respondents whether they regularly watched different types of television, such as police dramas, court shows, and true-crime series, giving researchers an opportunity to investigate the relationships between media consumption and attitudes toward the criminal justice system.

The 2006 National Center for State Courts Sentencing Attitudes poll looked at public attitudes towards mandatory minimum laws, problem-solving courts, and concerns about health and safety of prisoners, as well as questions about personal experience with knowing someone who has been incarcerated.