By Ana Zamora, Founder & CEO, The Just Trust
Gallup just published its annual survey of American attitudes toward crime and the criminal justice system. The poll dates back to 1992, and so does the framing of its central question, which asks respondents to characterize the justice system as either “too tough” or “not tough enough.” Feeling frustration with the status quo, most people say they want a tougher system when given limited options — but is this the best way to deliver the safety that everyone, of every political ideology, wants?
The 2023 survey might inspire the same tired call and response from opportunistic electeds or candidates trying to use crime as a political wedge, but it shouldn’t. This year, the results show that a strong majority of Americans are ready to shift the conversation from punishment to prevention and accountability. Here are four insights from the Gallup report to pay attention to:
Most people expect the justice system to play a significant role in making us safe. Unfortunately, this is not actually something it was designed to do well, which is why it constantly disappoints us. The justice system in America was made to wait around for harm to happen, and then to punish. It does so with harsh, lengthy sentences (which data shows does not deter crime) in horrific prison settings, with little focus on real rehabilitation.
Forty percent of respondents to Gallup’s poll said they did not feel safe walking alone at night; and yet, we default to calling for more punitive punishments, despite decades of evidence telling us this doesn't create safety. If it did, we'd already be the safest country in the world. So what can we do? Instead of spending so much time wrestling over how soft or how hard to yield this one tool of punishment, let’s focus on adding better tools to our toolbelt.
When presented with better choices — solutions that are proven to prevent and limit crime, reduce harm, and help people heal — Americans overwhelmingly choose them. By a 2-to-1 margin.
If you’re running for any office or pushing a policy, pay attention to this result. “Soft on crime” or “tough on crime” is a false choice that may sound good in a campaign ad but prevents us from solving problems. It’s clear from this poll that people want smarter, proven options for creating safety and preventing harm, like mental healthcare, affordable housing, and community safety solutions. Can you imagine if in the next election, candidates just agreed that crime is a problem, and then debated who had the best plan for implementing the preventative strategies that people want? Voters would be better heard, and our country would be better served.
And let's be clear -- this result does not mean people don't believe in accountability. It simply means people want the problem solved, and think we should be using different approaches that work better than the tired sliding scale of more or less punishment.
There are real reasons people feel less safe today than they did in 2020, and why 58 percent of Americans now think the U.S. criminal justice system is not tough enough in its handling of crime.
First, there were real increases in certain crimes as a direct result of the social and economic upheaval of the pandemic. In the same period, we also saw an explosion of coverage of crime by the media – so whether or not you actually experienced crime (which people did and do) perceptions and fear of crime also rose. Gallup reports that 63 percent of people say the U.S. crime problem is extremely/very serious, but only 17 percent say crime is a serious problem in their local area.
Second, some crimes did go up and people feel like nobody did anything about it. Why? Because the justice system can barely deliver justice and accountability on the most serious crimes, let alone prevent them. In 2021, for example, FBI data showed that over half of all murders went unsolved. And it’s not because our laws aren’t tough enough.
So, the results make sense. Crimes went up, the justice system didn't fix things as people expected it to (because it can't), and now we're dissatisfied.
The Gallup poll asks whether “you care more about law and order and police (55%) or reducing bias against minorities by reforming court and police policies (42%)?” This is yet another false choice, and shows how much nuance we have lost as a society.
After the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, a dichotomy further emerged: One could be either for reform and racial justice, or for police and the rule of law. But the truth is that most Americans care about all of the above. Most people think our institutions can do a heck of a lot better, and that we also need laws, ways to create true accountability, and effective rehabilitation that helps create better neighbors and stronger neighborhoods.
This illusion that you can only choose one side or the other is a huge part of what is holding us back from making progress on public safety and on reorienting the north stars of the justice system.
If you dig through the findings, this Gallup survey makes it clear that people in this country want real solutions to crime now. But the next survey can, and must, ask some different questions. Instead of forcing Americans to choose between tough and soft, or law and lawlessness, let’s ask them if they want safer communities, and what they think is the best way to get there. Because false perceptions and false choices are preventing us from achieving what everyone wants: safety.