Public Attitudes About the Culpability and Punishment of Young Offenders

Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-135

Behavioral Sciences and Law, 2006

37 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2007

See all articles by Elizabeth S. Scott

Elizabeth S. Scott

Columbia University - Law School

Dick Reppucci

University of Virginia - Psychology

Jill Antonishak

University of Virginia

Jennifer T. DeGennaro

University of Virginia

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that the public supports harsh punishment of juvenile offenders, and politicians often argue that the public demands tough policies. But public opinion is usually gauged through simplistic polls, often conducted in the wake of highly publicized violent crimes by juveniles. This study seeks to probe public opinion about the culpability of young offenders as compared to adult counterparts through more nuanced and comprehensive measures in a neutral setting (i.e. not in response to a high profile crime or during a political campaign when the media focuses on the issue). The opinions of 788 community adults were individually assessed, using two methodologies. First, we employed a survey, that directly asked participants' opinions about the minimum age of adult criminal prosecution for a broad range of crimes. Second, we designed a unique experimental technique in which participants were asked to respond to an individual offender who was described briefly and depicted (ostensibly) in a video clip of a robbery and also in a picture. The experimental technique made it possible to explore whether the age, appearance of maturity and race of offenders affect attitudes about appropriate punishment and responsibility without asking about these variables directly.

Three major findings emerged: 1) Community adults endorse the view that criminal choices of young offenders are influenced by their developmental immaturity and attribute more responsibility for the criminal act as the actor gets older; 2) the public has a relatively strong preference for differential treatment of juvenile and adult offenders; and 3) attitudes about culpability and punishment are not influenced by the culprit's race, physical maturity or appearance of toughness. The findings suggest either that punitive public opinion toward youth crime may be changing, or that the public is less supportive of punitive policies that treat young offenders as adults than politicians assume. The policy implications are discussed.

Keywords: youth, adolescence, crime

Suggested Citation

Scott, Elizabeth S. and Reppucci, Dickon and Antonishak, Jill and DeGennaro, Jennifer T., Public Attitudes About the Culpability and Punishment of Young Offenders. Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-135; Behavioral Sciences and Law, 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=959635

Elizabeth S. Scott (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
(212) 854-9758 (Phone)
(212) 854-7946 (Fax)

Dickon Reppucci

University of Virginia - Psychology ( email )

United States

Jill Antonishak

University of Virginia

1400 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Jennifer T. DeGennaro

University of Virginia

1400 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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