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October 24, 2007

Perceptive public perceptions and political opportunities

A helpful reader pointed me to some recent Gallup poll results concerning public perception of crime rates and drug problems.  Here are links and highlights from these recent polls:

On crime, this Gallup poll report is headlined "Perceptions of Crime Problem Remain Curiously Negative: More see crime worsening rather than improving."  This Gallup report makes much of the fact that "Americans have a decidedly negative outlook about crime" even though overall crime rates "have generally leveled off at extremely low numbers."  But, Gallup's poll question asked about perceptions of crime in the last year, and the latest FBI yearly report shows a roughly 2% increase in violent crime.

On drugs, this Gallup poll report is headlined "Little Change in Public's View of the U.S. Drug Problem: More than 7 in 10 Americans say nation's drug problem is very serious."   This Gallup report details that "the vast majority of Americans [are] saying the problem of illegal drugs in the United States is very serious," but "only about one in three Americans [believe that government efforts have] made progress in this area."

Beyond being impressed with the public's perceptiveness, these result would appear to present real political opportunities for those interested in sounder crime and sentencing policies.  Read together, these polls suggest that the public is primarily concerned with violent crimes and that most Americans view the government's use of harsh sentences in the "war on drugs" to be a failure.  In turn, the public ought to be very receptive to campaigns that promise dramatic reductions in sentences for non-violent drug offenders so that resources could be more effectively concentrated on (a) drug treatment programs, and (b) police and correctional resources devoted to preventing and responding to violent crimes and offenders.

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October 24, 2007 at 08:04 AM | Permalink


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Doc, that 2% upswing comes after crime has dropped precipitously for the last decade. It certainly doesn't justify the public's perception that crime is signficantly worse. It's the first uptick in years and just as likely to be a statistical blip as the start of a long-term trend. Overall, the violent crime victimization rate is less than half what it was ten years ago, see e.g.:


With regret, I take the exact opposite conclusion from these polling data that you have - not that the public is "perceptive" but that they're schizophrenic and confused. Crime is low but fear of crime is high. The drug war is ineffective but most still support it.

I share your wish that these results imply support for sentencing reform and prison alternatives, but that's hopeful speculation, IMO, not an evidence-based conclusion which may be drawn from these data.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 24, 2007 11:00:18 AM

The media do not provide the public with enough information for them to properly evaluate the drug problem. For example they report that between 1991 and 2005 drug arrests increased from 1,210,000 to 1,846,200 an increase of 53% when they should have reported that drug arrests for manufacturing and trafficking were 337,300 in 1991 and 337,900 in 2005 an increase of 0.2% and arrests for drug possession were 872,700 in 1991 and 1,508,500 in 2005 a 58% increase. So the people surveyed are correct the problem is worse but it is because more people are being arrested for possession where many people would incorrectly conclude the increase was in the number of persons arrested for manufacture and trafficking.

It does not appear to me that a single factor can account for the steady increase in the number of possession arrests since 1991. It also appears to me that drugs are readily available in good quality and low prices so that an arrest rate of 337,000 per year for manufacturing and trafficking has not significantly reduced the supply of drugs.

Posted by: JSN | Oct 24, 2007 3:12:55 PM

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