Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2007

Center/Program

Center for Gender & Sexuality Law

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that the public supports harsh punishment of juvenile offenders, and politicians often argue that the public demands tough policies. But public opinion is usually gauged through simplistic polls, often conducted in the wake of highly publicized violent crimes by juveniles. This study seeks to probe public opinion about the culpability of young offenders as compared to adult counterparts through more nuanced and comprehensive measures in a neutral setting (i.e. not in response to a high profile crime or during a political campaign when the media focuses on the issue). The opinions of 788 community adults were individually assessed, using two methodologies. First, we employed a survey, that directly asked participants' opinions about the minimum age of adult criminal prosecution for a broad range of crimes. Second, we designed a unique experimental technique in which participants were asked to respond to an individual offender who was described briefly and depicted (ostensibly) in a video clip of a robbery and also in a picture. The experimental technique made it possible to explore whether the age, appearance of maturity and race of offenders affect attitudes about appropriate punishment and responsibility without asking about these variables directly. Three major findings emerged: 1) Community adults endorse the view that criminal choices of young offenders are influenced by their developmental immaturity and attribute more responsibility for the criminal act as the actor gets older; 2) the public has a relatively strong preference for differential treatment of juvenile and adult offenders; and 3) attitudes about culpability and punishment are not influenced by the culprit's race, physical maturity or appearance of toughness. The findings suggest either that punitive public opinion toward youth crime may be changing, or that the public is less supportive of punitive policies that treat young offenders as adults than politicians assume. The policy implications are discussed.

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