Reprinted from February 2016 article
GROWING SOCIAL INEQUALITY LINKED TO HARSH CRIMINAL SENTENCES
A recent research paper out of Great Britain, finds that “public anger toward crime and support for harsh criminal justice policy ia linked to factors associated with social inequality.” The paper written by Carolyn Cote-Lussier, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, is titled, “The Functional Relation Between Social Inequality, Criminal Stereotypes, and PublicAttitudes toward Punishment of Crime”, (published in the journal of “Psycology, Public Policy and Law”).
What’s particularly interesting about this paper is that it explores in depth what may seem obvious to many, but is still of great significance; that the “link between between thinking that criminals have a low social status and feeling angry and punitive toward crime suggests that growing social inequality and failing to address disadvantage could actually contribute to even greater public demands for harsh criminal justice policy making it difficult for governments to tackle unsustainable high prison populations”.
Though the study was conducted in the UK, there is every reason to believe that the same factors are at work here in the U.S. “In the US, comprehensive longitudinal study revealed a significant association between income inequality and the US federal incarceration rate between 1953 and 2008. Income inequality has been rising over the past three decades in countries such as the US and Canada.”
Once again, thought the findings may not be surprising, they are important to a basic understanding of society’s attitude and harsh treatment of the criminal. It makes sense to conclude that the widenning social and economic inequality in the U.S since the 1980s., has had a significant impact on both our perception and treatment of those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Since 1990 alone, prison terms have increased substantially in the U.S. (According to a study by Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, the length of time served in U.S. prisons has increased by an average of 36 percent between 1990 and 2009; (PDF of the PEW article, “Time Served; The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms”).
“Lastly, Professor Cote-Lussier makes the point that “policies that reduce social inequality, such as improving educational attainment, could also ultimately decrease public demand for harsh criminal justice policies and could have the added benefit of reducing crime and the victimization of vulnerable populations.