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Measuring Public Perceptions of Appropriate Prison Sentences, Final Report

NCJ Number
Date Published
October 2002
118 pages
This document is the final report for a study designed to elicit information about the public’s preferences regarding sentencing and parole of criminal offenders.
It is important for policymakers to understand how the public views the appropriateness of current criminal justice policy, especially concerning the appropriateness of incarceration, length of sentence, and parole decisions. This research project tested new methodologies designed to elicit information about the public’s preferences regarding sentencing and parole of criminal offenders. The authors explained that their study relies heavily on the well-established method used by Wolfgang, et al. of sampling a portion of the U.S. population and asking them to respond to a series of crime vignettes. The goal of such a method is to gauge public perception of the seriousness of different crimes. In this case, however, the authors used a constrained-choice model designed to force the respondent to first, choose which of a series of crimes is more serious, and second, how much they would be willing to pay to reduce crime in their community. Other important aspects of this study included: (1) the focus on crimes normally encountered by local criminal justice agencies; (2) the focus on the parole decision in a constrained-choice model; and (3) the incorporation of explicit tradeoffs of various crimes and sentences to better gauge public preferences. The authors also employed two new methodologies designed to gain information on the public’s willingness to pay for crime prevention and control policies. A nationally representative survey of 1,300 U.S. adults found that, with two exceptions, the public largely agreed with current sentencing decisions concerning incarceration and length of sentence. The authors found strong support for spending more money to further reduce crimes, although most preferred that the money go toward prevention programs and more police officers rather than more prisons. Finally, the authors elicited information about willingness to pay for crime reduction and found that most respondents were willing to pay between $75 and $150 per year for prevention programs that would reduce local crime rates by 10 percent. In conclusion, the authors note that while this study was largely undertaken to test new methodologies, their findings are relevant for policymakers who use seriousness-of-crime surveys to decide future criminal justice and police policies. Tables, references, appendix

Date Published: October 1, 2002