Challenging public attitudes would help the government fulfil its ambitious plans for penal reform.

Social inequality is directly linked to public support for the UK’s increasingly harsh criminal justice policies, brought in despite falling crime rates. New evidence suggests attitudes to criminals are not just shaped by their crimes but also by their perceived social status.

Criminals are stereotyped as poor and uneducated, which most people equate to being callous and untrustworthy. These stereotypes help explain public anger and fear of crime, as well as increased support for more harsh policies.

This evidence brings new light to data which suggests that the devastating effects of criminal justice policy are felt most strongly by those in the margins of society, such as the poor, homeless, ethnic minorities and those with mental health problems. This over-representation of low-status individuals might be seen as justified, because of stereotypes linking low status to a perceived evil and callous disposition.

This link between thinking that criminals have a low social status and feeling angry and punitive toward crime suggests that growing social inequality and failure to address disadvantage could contribute to even greater public demands for harsh policies, making it difficult for governments to tackle unsustainably high prison populations.  

The UK prison population reached its capacity of 80,000 by 2006 and grew to more than 94,000 by 2013. Despite this, widespread dissatisfaction with the severity of sentencing has been noted over recent decades. In 1996 around 79% of the public thought sentences were too lenient; in 2010 it was still 74%. In 2010, the UK was among the European countries with the highest levels of public punitiveness.

Improving understanding of public punitiveness calls for consideration of factors other than the crime rate and government responses to crime – including social inequality. According to the UK Equality Trust, inequality rose considerably in the 1980s and reached a peak in 1990. After falling at the beginning of the 2000s, it started to rise again in the mid-2000s and levelled off by 2010. Of the 30 OECD countries in the Luxembourg Income Study data set, the UK is one of the most unequal.

These inequality trends are worrying in terms of implications for public support for harsh criminal justice policies, which are costly in both social and economic terms. The percentage of GDP spent on public order and safety in the UK (2.2%) is well above the EU average (1.8%). In terms of reoffending, the UK rate in 2013 was 26.5%, while the reoffending rate for adult offenders released from custody was 45.8%.

Parts of the US have already stepped back from their previous ‘tough on crime’ agendas. Although Canada’s criminal justice system is significantly less expansive than that of the US, the new Liberal government has also announced that it intends to review and challenge laws and reforms introduced under the previous government’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda.

In the autumn spending review it was disclosed that the Ministry of Justice will spend £1.3bn over the next five years to transform the prison estate to better support rehabilitation. The aim is to build new, more efficient and safer prisons to reduce reoffending and, eventually, cut running costs.

Additional reforms will be necessary to tackle persistent public calls for harsher policies. Efforts could be made to change the way in which individuals perceive and feel about criminals. Political and advocacy group campaigns should aim to attenuate punitive trends by countering stereotypical perceptions of criminals, particularly non-violent offenders or those in pre-trial detention. Policies that reduce social inequality, such as improving educational attainment, could also decrease public demand for harsh policies and have the added benefit of reducing crime and the victimisation of vulnerable populations.

Dr Carolyn Côté-Lussier is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. The findings are discussed in more detail in an article entitled The Functional Relation Between Social Inequality, Criminal Stereotypes, and Public Attitudes Toward Punishment of Crime published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law