Differences in punitiveness across three cultures: a test of American exceptionalism in justice attitudes.

Author:Kugler, Matthew B.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN PUNITIVE ATTITUDES II. PAST RESEARCH ON SENTENCING ATTITUDES III. THE PRESENT RESEARCH A. Choosing Countries and Crimes to Study 1. Countries 2. Crimes B. Measuring Differences in Punitiveness 1. Scenario Assessment 2. Punishment-Related Attitudes 3. Perceptions of Descriptive Norms C. Method 1. Participants 2. Materials 3. Scenarios 4. Dependent Variables 5. Individual Difference Questions 6. Demographic Questions D. Procedure IV. RESULTS A. Data Preparation B. Final Sample Demographics C. Effects of Culture 1. On Scenario Judgments 2. On Justice Attitudes 3. Alternative Analysis V. DISCUSSION VI. CONCLUSION "Crime and the fear of crime have permeated the fabric of American life...."

--Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (February 8, 1981) (1)

It is often suggested that there is a peculiarly American psychology of punishment. (2) According to this theory, Americans think about crime in fundamentally different ways than other Westerners, holding uniquely harsh attitudes toward criminal offenders. In this Article, we test this theory of American distinctiveness by comparing the justice attitudes of Americans with those of Canadians and Germans. Are Americans actually harsher than people from these otherwise similar countries?

In Part I, we briefly review the literature on punitive attitudes and distinguish between the theories predicting complete American distinctiveness and those suggesting the existence of a broader class of punitive countries. Part II examines the prior cross-national work on sentencing attitudes, concluding that the limited prior evidence supports the existence of a set of punitive Anglophone countries rather than total American Exceptionalism. Part III describes our experimental design, our selection of Canada and Germany as comparison countries, the set of sentencing scenarios employed, and the survey procedures. Part IV describes our analyses, results, and conclusions. We find that, across a range of major and minor crimes, Americans and Canadians both prefer longer sentences than do Germans but, interestingly, do not differ from each other. The longer sentences Americans and Canadians prefer are not accompanied by a belief that the punished acts were more morally wrongful. The degree of similarity observed between the American and Canadian samples across all crime categories undermines the case for American Exceptionalism in justice attitudes.


    The past fifty years have seen a rise in concern about crime in the United States and, concurrently, in the national incarceration rate. Since at least the 1960s, crime has been a major issue in American elections, (3) and the political relevance of criminal justice concerns only increased in the final decades of the twentieth century. (4) Many people believe that sentences are too lenient, jail is too mild, and crime is on the rise. (5) In a move toward what Julian V. Roberts and colleagues term penal populism, political leaders have learned to tap this reservoir of public concern by advocating ever more severe criminal justice policies, leading to an arms race to be the harshest and most severe voice in the public sphere. (6) The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, assigns more long-duration prison sentences than do other countries, and makes considerable use of the death penalty when almost all other Western democracies have banned that punishment. (7) This portrait inspires the "American Exceptionalism" theory in criminal justice policy, which suggests that the United States has a qualitatively different approach to criminal justice issues than other Western countries. (8)

    The rising concern about crime and, more importantly, the political response are worrying in light of the apparent miscalibration of public opinion. People are remarkably bad at estimating the sentences that offenders will likely receive, the harshness of the prison conditions offenders will endure, and the probability that they will be paroled, consistently believing that the system is more lenient and less effective than is actually the case, and that the crime problem is worse than it actually is. (9) In 2010, for example, two-thirds of Americans believed that crime was on the rise when government statistics showed that it had been consistently decreasing. (10) This inaccuracy in public perceptions means that "[b]y implication, penal populism involves the exploitation of misinformed opinion in the pursuit of electoral advantage." (11)

    Although this combination of public misperception, harsh political rhetoric, and severe criminal justice policy has been observed across many (particularly Anglophone) countries, the American experience is often cited as the prototypical and most extreme case. (12) Many theories therefore focus on the American experience, highlighting elements of the political culture or public psychology that may help explain why Americans would view crime differently than people from other countries. (13) Some of these theories focus on factors that would suggest that the United States is totally unique, such as views of status, (14) a history of vigilante justice, (15) and a tradition of localized criminal justice policy. (16) This strong version of the American Exceptionalism hypothesis is, facially, highly plausible because the United States is the only major Western democracy that still uses the death penalty. A particularly vivid example of these theories is Simon's contention that Americans are "governed through crime." According to Simon, American society sees itself as critically threatened by crime and, therefore, must carry out a "war on crime" in its own defense. (17) Americans see crime everywhere, the fear of crime being a daily affair for both black and white Americans. (18) In this view, American support for three-strikes laws, the death penalty, and related policies are responses to the subjective impression that crimes present a dire threat to society. (19)

    Other theories explaining American Exceptionalism focus more on social geography and political process, examining factors that apply to other countries as well as the United States. For example, the United States, along with Canada and many other Anglophone countries, is arguably a frontier society. (20) Countries with a frontier history of individualistic independence and rough justice may have a cultural mindset that is sympathetic to vigilantism and especially punitive toward lawbreakers. (21) Other scholars have speculated that rising income inequality in neoliberal economic systems--particularly the United States, but also the other Anglophone countries such as Canada--has led to increased social exclusion of (the primarily low status) criminal offenders. (22) Similarly, Katherine Beckett argues that the "tough on crime" rhetoric of political elites caused the rising concern about crime in the latter half of the twentieth century rather than the reverse, and that the elites' focus on crime was part of a broader effort to reorient public policy in the wake of the social reforms of the 1960s. (23) Under this explanation, the main difference between the United States and other Western democracies is the strength and tactics of their conservative political movements.

    These latter theories speak to the resonance between criminal justice policy and the broader economic and social context. One implication of these theories is that the level of correspondence between the United States and other nations on criminal justice issues may mirror the degree of similarity on these other policy questions. Work by Tapio Lappi-Seppala has found strong relationships between a country's incarceration rate and its social welfare policies, level of inequality, and political structure as well as the level of fear among its citizens, their social tolerance, and their individual punitiveness. (24) This suggests that these different factors are either heavily interdependent--with certain political structures giving rise to a popular discourse that increases the level of fear among a country's citizens--or reflective of common underlying structures.

    Some theories would therefore predict that Americans should feel differently about crime than citizens from all other countries. (25) Others, however, would predict that Americans should be relatively similar to people from select countries with appropriate geographies, economic systems, or cultural heritages, but likely different from all others. (26) These competing theories lead to two key questions for the present research:

    (1) Are Americans more punitive than citizens of other countries that have very different justice systems, like Germany?

    (2) If so, are Americans also more punitive than citizens of countries that have different justice systems but are culturally similar in various ways, like Canada?


    Although there is some previous work on these questions, large-scale comparative analyses of social attitudes are relatively uncommon and, when they occur, often have only a few relevant items. Some of the existing studies have focused on views toward specific criminal justice policies (i.e., the death penalty (27)) or broad social attitudes about the leniency of the courts, (28) rather than sentencing judgments per se. Polls have asked questions such as: "Are sentences too harsh, too lenient, or about right?" (29) or "How much do you fear becoming the victim of a crime?" Due to the extent of popular misperceptions about the status quo, however, this kind of attitudinal data can sometimes be difficult to interpret. People are generally unaware of actual sentencing practices, so their level of dissatisfaction with what they believe courts are doing is highly indirect evidence of their personal punitive intent. (30) The lack of specificity in the questions is also...

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