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Public Opinion

On this page, the Prison Policy Initiative has curated all of the research about public perception of the criminal justice system that we know of. For research on other criminal justice topics, see our Research Library homepage.

  • What do Americans think about the U.S. prison system? YouGov, August, 2023“Americans are fairly split on whether or not the level of incarceration is a problem in the U.S.: 36% say the U.S. incarcerates too many people, 21% say about the right number of people are incarcerated, and 24% say too few people are incarcerated.”
  • Coping With Limited Prosecutorial Resources: An Assessment of the Case Processing and Community Impact From...Prosecutors and Staff in a Southeastern County Paywall :( Christi Metcalfe and Joseph B. Kuhns, March, 2023“Results suggested that Mecklenburg County...suffered more broadly from criminal justice funding challenges, and faced staffing shortages and turnover that were perceived as affecting case dispositions, office morale, and community trust.”
  • Obscuring the Truth: How Misinformation is Skewing the Conversation about Pretrial Justice Reforms in Illinois End Money Bond, October, 2022“By detailing how misinformation shaped the public debate of pretrial justice reforms in Cook County, we hope to arm journalists with the resources needed to cover the statewide reforms included in the Pretrial Fairness Act.”
  • Conceptualizing and Measuring Public Stigma Toward People With Prison Records Paywall :( Luzi Shi et al, July, 2022“Results show that [public stigma] is positively related to support for disenfranchisement and punitive policies and negatively related to support for rehabilitative policies.”
  • Race and Ethnicity Differences in Police Contact and Perceptions of and Attitudes Toward the Police Among Youth Paywall :( Kathryn Foster, Melissa S. Jones, and Hayley Pierce, March, 2022“When a direct stop involved more officer intrusiveness, black youth reported less respect and more negative perceptions of procedural justice.”
  • Reforming the police through procedural justice training: A multicity randomized trial at crime hot spots David Weisburd et al, January, 2022“Intensive training in procedural justice (PJ) can lead to more procedurally just behavior and less disrespectful treatment of people [by police officers] at high-crime places.”
  • Police Violence Reduces Civilian Cooperation and Engagement with Law Enforcement Desmond Ang et al., September, 2021“We find evidence that high-profile acts of police violence may severely impair civilian trust and crime-reporting...[In] eight major cities, we show a sharp drop in the ratio of 911 calls to ShotSpotter shots immediately after George Floyd's death.”
  • Policing by the Numbers Council on Criminal Justice, June, 2021“Efforts to develop responses that achieve the twin goals of crime control and justice must be grounded in hard data and research evidence, as well as personal and professional experience.”
  • Public Opinion About Police Weapons and Equipment: An Exploratory Analysis Paywall :( Kevin H. Wozniak, Kevin M. Drakulich, and Brian R. Calfano, March, 2021“We find that public opinion defies easy classification into "militarized" versus "routine" equipment categories...perceptions of police misconduct and bias predict opposition to some types of tools.”
  • Safety We Can Feel Safety We Can Feel, February, 2021“Respondents wanted to see more funding going towards centers for mental health and addiction recovery (58%), housing and stability assistance (57%), and education and youth programming (53%) as approaches to addressing violence.”
  • Do District Attorneys Represent Their Voters? Evidence from California's Era of Criminal Justice Reform Michael W. Sances, January, 2021“While voter preferences vary greatly across issues and geography, DA's almost always take the conservative position.”
  • Toward Shared Safety: The First-Ever National Survey of America's Safety Gaps Alliance for Safety and Justice, September, 2020“Broad consensus exists at the neighborhood level and across different demographics: public safety policies and investments should prioritize violence prevention, recovery, mental health, reentry and the most effective strategies to stop the cycle of crime”
  • Public opinion and the politics of collateral consequence policies Paywall :( Travis Johnston and Kevin H Wozniak, August, 2020“We find that Americans generally oppose benefit restrictions, though support for these policies is higher among Republicans and people with higher levels of racial resentment.”
  • America's Hidden Common Ground on Police Reform and Racism in the United States: Results from a Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos Hidden Common Ground survey Ipsos and Public Agenda, June, 2020“Most Americans (58%) say racial bias against Black or African Americans committed by police and law enforcement is a serious problem in their community, including 75% of Democrats and 51% of Independents as well as 40% of Republicans.”
  • Widespread Desire for Policing and Criminal Justice Reform The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, June, 2020“Americans, regardless of race, strongly support policies that include body cameras, holding police accountable for excessive force and racially biased policing, and creating criteria for the use of force.”
  • Connecting Families: Compelling messaging for prison phone justice campaigns Worth Rises, March, 2020“71% of people support providing families and their loved ones behind bars phone calls at no cost.”
  • Reconciling Police and Communities with Apologies, Acknowledgements, or Both: A Controlled Experiment Thomas C. O'Brien, Tracey L. Meares, Tom R. Tyler, February, 2020“The evidence suggests that police leaders should combine acknowledgement of responsibility for the mistrust with an apology if they want to enlist the cooperation of people who are least likely to trust the police.”
  • Voters Support Reducing the Use of Fines and Fees in Sentencing Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative, August, 2019“Sixty-four percent either somewhat or strongly supported limiting the use of fines and fees to those able to pay.”
  • Democracy, Bureaucracy and Criminal Justice Reform Lauren M. Ouziel, May, 2019“Elected leaders are voted in with high expectations for transformative change, yet may be stymied by the bureaucracy's resistance to it.”
  • More Black than Blue: Politics and Power in the 2019 Black Census The Black Futures Lab, May, 2019“More than half (55 percent) of respondents have personally had a negative interaction with the police at some point, and 28 percent have had at least one negative interaction in the last 6 months.”
  • California Crime Survivors Speak: A Statewide Survey of California Victims' Views on Safety and Justice Californians for Safety and Justice, April, 2019“By a nearly a five to one margin, victims say that prison either makes it more likely someone will commit crimes or has no public safety impact at all. Only a small percentage believe that prisons help rehabilitate people.”
  • Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda Brennan Center for Justice, February, 2019(Presidential candidates should commit to tackling some of the most pervasive and damaging parts of our criminal justice system, including overly punitive sentences, bail practices that favor the rich, and drug policies that unfairly target people of color)
  • Actual violent crime has nothing to do with our fear of violent crime Prison Policy Initiative, May, 2018“Comparing violent crime rates to public opinion data shows that there's a long-standing disconnect between perception and reality.”
  • New poll shows mass incarceration is a Latinx issue Prison Policy Initiative, January, 2018“The majority of Latinxs favor rehabilitation over more punitive responses to crime, such as added police or prisons.”
  • Measuring Public Safety: Responsibly Interpreting Statistics on Violent Crime Vera Institute of Justice, July, 2017“With a few exceptions that require targeted attention, violent crime rates are lower today than they have been at any point over the past four decades.”
  • Public Opinion on Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts MassInc, June, 2017(A new MassINC poll shows most people support reforms to both the front and back ends of the system to reduce repeat offending and refocus the system on prevention and rehabilitation.)
  • How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police? Urban Institute, February, 2017“27.8% of respondents agreed/strongly agreed that police almost always behave according to the law. Approximately one-third agreed or strongly agreed that police stand up for values that are important to them and often arrest people for no good reason.”
  • Repurposing: New Beginnings for Closed Prisons The Sentencing Project, December, 2016“Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 92 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $333 million.”
  • Common Ground: How all of Oregon Contributes to Criminal Justice Reform Vera Institute of Justice, November, 2016“This brief describes how the state of Oregon worked together with its local community and government partners to address its growing prison population.”
  • Crime Survivors Speak: The First-Ever National Survey of Victims' Views on Safety and Justice Alliance for Safety and Justice, August, 2016“Perhaps to the surprise of some, victims overwhelmingly prefer criminal justice approaches that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and strongly prefer investments in crime prevention and treatment to more spending on prisons and jails.”
  • One Year Later: Race Relations and the Emanuel 9 Shooting University of South Carolina Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, June, 2016“Among blacks, 30.9% favored the death penalty, while 64.7% believed he should receive life without parole; among whites, 64.2% supported the death penalty if found guilty in this case and 29.7% felt he should be given life without parole.”
  • Key findings from statewide surveys in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin Justice Action Network; The Tarrance Group, February, 2016“[T]here is broad consensus that the federal criminal justice system jails too many non-violent criminals and spends too much on jailing nonviolent offenders.”
  • National Survey Key Findings - Federal Sentencing & Prisons The Pew Charitable Trusts, February, 2016“Voters are ready and willing to reform the criminal justice system in ways that reduce the size and cost of the federal prison system, while improving outcomes.”
  • How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases Brennan Center for Justice, December, 2015“The more frequently television ads air during an election, the less likely state supreme court justices are, on average, to rule in favor of criminal defendants.”
  • Overwhelming, Broad, and Extensive Support Across Party, Ideology and Demographics for Criminal Justice Reform in New Louisiana Survey Findings Justice Action Network, November, 2015“82.6% of Louisiana likely voters support justice reform, including 26.8% who believe the system needs a complete overhaul and 29% who think it needs major reform.”
  • How Racial Attitudes and Ideology Affect Political Rights for Felons Du Bois Review, May, 2015“Consistent with much of the literature on attitudes toward ameliorative racial policies, higher levels of racial resentment strongly predict lower support for felons’ political rights among both conservatives and liberals.”
  • The Opportunity Survey: Criminal Justice Findings The Opportunity Agenda, March, 2015“Sixty percent of the American public believes that the unequal treatment of people who have served a prison sentence is a serious problem.”
  • Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices' Decisions in Criminal Cases Emory Law School; American Constitution Society, October, 2014“In a state with 10,000 ads, a doubling of airings is associated on average with an 8 percent increase in justices' voting against a criminal defendant's appeal.”
  • The Crime Beat: Does Quantity Matter? John Jay College of Criminal Justice Center on Media, Crime and Justice, October, 2014“We found that the six papers under review averaged about 78 crime-related stories for the period studied, with the most stories appearing in The Camden Courier-Post (165) and the fewest in the Naperville Sun (26).”
  • Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies Sentencing Project, September, 2014“Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies - including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing - than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”
  • An Overview of Public Opinion and Discourse on Criminal Justice Issues The Opportunity Agenda, August, 2014(Since the 1990s, people are backing away from harsh enforcement and sentencing policies, such as mandatory sentencing, and appear more interested in allocating tax dollars toward rehabilitation, treatment, and support efforts.)
  • High-Risk Early Adolescents' Perceptions of Jail and Offender Experiences Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 2014“The majority of UII interviews contained statements of violence (64.8%) and drugs (32.4%).”
  • The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report Death Penalty Information Center, December, 2013“Public support for the death penalty reached its lowest level in 40 years.”
  • Criminals and Campaign Cash The Impact of Judicial Campaign Spending on Criminal Defendants Center for American Progress, October, 2013“As Illinois voters were bombarded with attack ads featuring violent criminals, the high court ruled in favor of the prosecution in 69 percent of its criminal cases—an 18 percent increase over the previous year.”
  • Requests for Police Assistance, 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics, September, 2013“An estimated 1 in 8 U.S. residents age 16 or older, or 31.4 million persons, requested assistance from police at least once, most commonly to report a crime, suspicious activity, or neighborhood disturbance.”
  • Police Behavior during Traffic and Street Stops, 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics, September, 2013“Of those involved in traffic and street stops, a smaller percentage of blacks than whites believed the police behaved properly during the stop.”
  • Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware: Pace of Decline Slows in Past Decade Pew Research Center, May, 2013“Compared with '93, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the gun homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation's population grew. 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than in '93, only 12% think it is lower.”
  • Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America Pew Center on the States, March, 2012“Support for sentencing and corrections reforms (including reduced prison terms) is strong across political parties, regions, age, gender, and racial/ethnic groups.”
  • Continued Majority Support for Death Penalty More Concern among Opponents about Wrongful Convictions Pew Research Center, January, 2012“Public opinion about the death penalty has changed only modestly in recent years, but there continues to be far less support for the death penalty than there was in the mid-1990s.”
  • Moving Beyond Sides The Power and Potential of a New Public Safety Policy Paradigm Partnership for Safety and Justice, December, 2011“The goal of the paper is to explore the untapped potential of a more holistic analysis and strategy that connects traditional criminal justice reform organizations with victim-oriented advocacy groups to work for progressive public safety policy.”
  • Moving Target A Decade of Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex Justice Policy Institute, September, 2009“All modern day struggles for justice are implicated in criminal justice reform efforts because the current system magnifies all the ways in which the United States of America fails many of the people who live within its borders.”
  • Moving Target A Decade of Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex Justice Policy Institute, September, 2009“All modern day struggles for justice are implicated in criminal justice reform efforts because the current system magnifies all the ways in which the United States of America fails many of the people who live within its borders.”
  • No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US Human Rights Watch, September, 2007“The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them.”
  • Attitudes of US Voters toward Youth Crime and the Justice System National Council on Crime and Delinquency, February, 2007“Approximately 7 in 10 feel that putting youth under age 18 in adult correctional facilities makes them more likely to commit future crime.”
  • Community Survey on Public Safety National Council on Crime and Delinquency, June, 2006“Forty-three percent (43.8%) of survey respondents report feeling somewhat unsafe or unsafe in their neighborhood.”
  • Attitudes of US Voters toward Prisoner Rehabilitation National Council on Crime and Delinquency, April, 2006“By strong majorities, US voters feel that a lack of life skills, the experience of being in prison, and obstacles to reentry are major factors in the rearrest of prisoners after release. Few thought that criminality is inherent.”
  • Reforming California's Youth and Adult Correctional System Corrections Independent Review Panel, July, 2004
  • Attitudes of Californians Toward Effective Correctional Policies National Council on Crime and Delinquency, June, 2004“By almost an 8 to 1 margin (63% to 8%), Californians favor using state funds to rehabilitate prisoners both during incarceration and after their release from prison as opposed to punishment only.”
  • Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004“Black faces looked more criminal to police officers; the more Black, the more criminal.”
  • East Side of St. Paul: Crime Related Needs Assessment Council on Crime and Justice, February, 2003“In order to assess the needs of racial/ethnic communities experiencing heightened criminal activity within their neighborhoods, five focus groups were undertaken: African American, Hmong, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, and Caucasian.”
  • Public Attitudes Towards Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States Profs Uggen, Brooks and Manza, September, 2002(Published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 68)
  • Improving public attitudes to the Criminal Justice System: The impact of information Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, July, 2002(Appendix A (156K)  Appendix B (244K))
  • California Voters' Reaction to Proposed Cuts in the Budget California HealthCare Foundation, July, 2002“large proportions of voters favored cutbacks in state prisons and corrections (46 percent)”(See press release or page 4 of graphical summary.)
  • Changing Public Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System Open Society Institute, February, 2002“In era of budget shortfalls, Americans support long-term strategies to save money by reducing reliance on prisons”
  • Public Opinion on Youth, Crime, and Race: A Guide for Advocates Youth Law Center, October, 2001
  • Survey on Drug Use and Drug Policy Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, September, 2001“voter attitudes and opinions toward issues relating to drug abuse and drug policy in Colorado”
  • Public Attitudes Toward Uses of Criminal History Information Bureau of Justice Statistics, July, 2001
  • National Task Force on Privacy, Technology and Criminal Justice Information , Report of Bureau of Justice Statistics, July, 2001(Findings from a comprehensive project that reviewed the law and policy addressing the collection, use, and dissemination of criminal justice record information and, particularly, criminal history record information.)
  • Optimism, Pessimism, and Jailhouse Redemption: American Attitudes on Crime, Punishment, and Over-incarceration ACLU, July, 2001
  • Crime, Punishment and Public Opinion A Summary of Recent Studies and their implications for Sentencing Policy Sentencing Project, 2001
  • Barred from the Vote: Public Attitudes Toward the Disenfranchisement of Felons Pinaire, Heumann, and Bilotta, 2001
  • National Public Survey on White Collar Crime National White Collar Crime Center, 2000
  • Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety Bureau of Justice Statistics, May, 1999“Survey in 12 cities show widespread community support for police: New process collects data on victimization, citizen perceptions of police and crime”
  • Crime Control and Common Sense Assumptions Underlying the Expansion of the Prison Population Urban Institute, May, 1999
  • Perceptions of Neighborhood Crime, 1995 Bureau of Justice Statistics, April, 1998
  • Corrections in Florida: What the Public, News Media and DC Staff Think Florida Department of Corrections, March, 1998
  • The Will of the People The Public's Opinion of the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997 Justice Policy Institute, March, 1998
  • Crime and Neighborhoods Bureau of Justice Statistics, June, 1994“compares victimization levels and perceptions of neighborhood crime”

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