This is according to Dr. Timothy J. Flanagan, dean and director of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University, which has just completed the 1996 National Opinion Survey on Crime and Justice.
In telephone interviews conducted with more than 1,000 individuals throughout the United States, Sam Houston State University researchers found that almost half of those surveyed (49 percent) worried "very frequently" or "somewhat frequently" that their home would be burglarized.
About the same proportion (47 percent) worried that they or someone in their family would be sexually assaulted. A third (33 percent) worried that they would get beaten up, knifed, or shot and almost one in four (23 percent) worried about getting murdered.
"Americans express a fairly high degree of concern about personal safety, and have done so for years," said Flanagan.
"They worry about their homes being burglarized when they are away and about break-ins when they are at home. They worry about robbery on the streets and in parking lots. They worry about car-jackings and drive-by shootings. Women worry about sexual assault and adults worry not only about themselves but about the safety of their children and their elderly parents."
The SHSU survey also measured Americans' confidence in the official criminal justice system, which Flanagan said has declined.
Six in 10 Americans (59 percent) still express "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in their local police. Not faring as well were local court systems (32 percent), state prison systems (23 percent) and community probation systems (21 percent).
Only one in four Americans (25 percent) expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole.
"Social defense, or protecting citizens from criminal victimization, is seen as the main function of the criminal justice system," said Flanagan. "Efficiency is important, fairness is valued, integrity of justice system officials is expected, but these goals pale in comparison to the expectation that the criminal justice system exists to protect us from crime."
Another change borne out by the latest survey is that offenders are less likely to be seen as products of poor social settings, unfortunate victims, or "boys gone bad."
Learning crime from family and friends and lack of discipline ranked high among respondents' choices for the most important causes of crime in America today.
More than three of four (75 percent) "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" that "criminals are born that way," and eight in 10 (82 percent) "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "kids break the law when they are not close to parents."
"The view of the criminal in the public mind has transformed into a more volitional, more willful actor," said Flanagan. "Undoubtedly the rise in weapon use, drug use and gangs has fostered this transformation."
With that view, he said, has come a more punitive approach to corrections.
"This has brought greater willingness to support punitive responses to crime that focus on incapacitation," said Flanagan. "If offenders choose crime, after all, then rehabilitation as a response seems less appropriate than severe sanctions designed to tilt the equation in favor of choosing a legitimate alternative."
Data for the survey was collected by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. The margin of error was computed as plus or minus three percentage points.
July 18, 1996