The source of American punitiveness

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Since the 1970s, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 700%. Consequently, there are now over 2.3 million people behind bars. Friends of Justice believes that this shift toward mass incarceration was driven by a punitive public consensus. This punitiveness resulted in tough-on-crime policies that promote harsh punishment over rehabilitation and leave prisoners locked up and left out.

There are many theories that attempt to explain why the U.S. shifted toward punitive criminal justice policies over the last 40 years. A recent study by Unnever and Cullen (2010) explores the social sources of punitiveness among Americans by examining the efficacy of three prominent theories: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model.

The escalating crime-distrust model suggests that punitiveness is driven by the combination of an individual’s fear that crime is increasing, belief that his or her safety is at risk, and distrust in the government’s ability to protect him or her from crime. This theory also argues that an individual’s belief that courts put the rights of offenders over the rights of victims further contributes to a punitive attitude toward crime. The moral decline model suggests that punitive attitudes stem from an individual’s belief that society is in a state of moral decay. Therefore, only harsh policies toward crime will restore social cohesion. The racial-animus model argues that racial and ethnic hostility and intolerance is tied to punitiveness in the criminal justice system:

 “A sizable proportion of the American public perceives the crime problem through a racial lens that results in an association of crime with African Americans, especially Black men. This lens, mostly unique to Whites and especially to those who are racist, colors their view of crime. For these Americans, when they think about crime, the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, Black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse. For them, this offender is the “superpredator” Black male.”

Evidence suggests that people tend to support or oppose social programs or policies based on their group identification. “Therefore,” Unnever and Cullen argue, “people will oppose policies even if they are in their own best interests because they may benefit groups that they hold in disregard.” According to the racial-animus model, it is this phenomenon that drives punitive attitudes toward crime.

The purpose of Unnever and Cullen’s research was to test these three theories. To examine the validity of each theory, Unnever and Cullen asked individuals about the extent to which they felt crime was increasing and the degree to which they felt society was in moral decline. They also measured participants’ level of racial resentment, belief in racial stereotypes, punitive attitudes, and degree of support for the death penalty.

The results of their research indicate that each theory has some merit. Unnever and Cullen found, as the escalating crime-distrust model suggests, that people who perceive that crime is on the rise are more likely to adopt punitive attitudes. In addition, their results indicate that people who believe that society is in a state of moral decay are more likely to support the death penalty which confirms some of the assumptions of the moral decline model. However, the results of Unnever and Cullen’s research most consistently support the racial-animus model:

“A prominent reason for the American public’s punitiveness — including the embrace of mass imprisonment and the death penalty — is the belief that those disproportionately subject to these harsh sanctions are people they do not like: African American offenders.”

The results of this study indicate that Americans tend to view crime through a racial lens. Because of this, crime is often associated with “others” — usually poor people of color. It is this “other” status that keeps many Americans from identifying with and having empathy for those caught up in the criminal justice system. This lack of “empathic identification” contributes to Americans’ support for punitive criminal justice policies.

Although, as this research suggests, there are multiple factors that contribute to Americans’ punitive attitudes toward crime, race and racism seem to be the most consistent factors.  As long as the majority of Americans are unable to empathize and identify with poor people of color, the punitive consensus will continue to shape public policies and stymie meaningful criminal justice reform. Therefore, it is imperative that we look at the implications of our current criminal justice policies through a racial equity lens and work to transform the punitive consensus driving mass incarceration.


Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2010). The social sources of Americans’ punitiveness: A test of three competing models. Criminology, 48(1), 99-129.

2 thoughts on “The source of American punitiveness

Comments are closed.