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Shifting View of Criminal Justice in U.S.

The 2020 poll shows that only 41% of Americans still believe the criminal justice system is not tough enough, and while that is still a large number of people, it represents a halving of the 1992 number.

The same poll found that 21% say the system is “too tough,” a seven percentage point increase from 2016, while 35% believe that it is “about right,” a figure that has held steady for about a decade.

There are significant differences in opinion across racial and political lines, but the arc of the trends follows the same pattern in each demographic measured.

Among Republicans, for example, 58% say the system is not tough enough, but that number has fallen 21% over the last 20 years, and while only 6% say the system is too tough, only 1% said the same in 2000.

White adults were 50 percent more likely to say the system is not tough enough than non-Whites, but both groups have seen a roughly 25 point drop since 2000.

The poll also asked respondents about how they felt the criminal justice situation could be improved. Fully 63% of all adults answered that addressing social problems should be the focus as opposed to 34% who thought the key was strengthening law enforcement. Not surprisingly, Whites and Republicans more strongly favored strengthening law enforcement, while non-Whites and Democrats favored addressing social problems.

The correlation of opinion with race and party affiliation was consistent on multiple questions and has followed similar trend lines across the last two decades. These trends cannot be fully attributed to the recent focus on racial inequity in policing and criminal justice. Instead, they appear to represent ingrained demographic phenomena which, while not completely resistant to modification, appear to be consistent enough to express long­standing social realities that can explain voting and policy preferences.

It is unclear if the changes in public opinion will eventually result in substantive criminal justice reform or if the roughly 41% of Americans who still believe that the system is not tough enough will continue to dominate the political process. What is clear is that the highly publicized cases of unarmed Black Americans dying in police encounters, and the social upheaval that followed these cases, has worked to accelerate existing shifts in public opinion. The political consequences of this acceleration have yet to be determined. 


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