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Texas Crime Poll Indicates
Texans Becoming More Punitive

Today's Texans show both "conservatism" and "compassion" in their attitudes about how to treat criminals. According to the results of the 1999 Texas Crime Poll, an annual survey conducted by the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, today's Texans are more punitive than ever but they haven't given up on people who commit crimes.

Data for the 1999 survey was compiled through telephone interviews with 607 adult Texans in July and August of this year, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4-4.5 percentage points depending on the individual questions.

"The most significant shift in Texans' attitudes about criminal justice over the past 20 years seems to be a loss of commitment to rehabilitation and an acceptance of adult prisons as warehouses to keep 'them' away from 'us' and to punish 'them' for their crimes," said Dennis R. Longmire, author of the study.

This year's survey replicated a similar study completed in 1979 and the results show that today's Texans are considerably more punitive than the 1979 sample. Compared to the 1979 results, more Texans today would support the use of capital punishment in cases involving murder, rape, treason, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Respondents to the 1999 survey were also more likely than those in 1979 to consider "punishment" and "incapacitation" to be "very important" purposes of prisons. In 1979, 84 percent of the sample reported that "rehabilitation" was a "very important" purpose of prisons. In 1999 that number had dropped to 72 percent.

At the same time, 68 percent of today's Texans see "incapacitation" as "very important" for prisons compared to only 43 percent in 1979. Following the trend toward increased support for "incapacitation," 71 percent of today's Texans felt that offenders should serve their full prison sentence rather than being released early on parole. In 1979, only 52 percent of the sample felt this way.

But these punitive attitudes are tempered with a tone of compassion as well. The 1999 sample was also asked what they thought about the purpose of the adult and juvenile justice systems in general. Ninety-two percent of the respondents felt that "rehabilitation" should be a "very important" purpose for the juvenile justice system along with 68 percent for the adult justice system.

And although 83 percent of the respondents identified "punishment" as a "very important" purpose for the adult system, over half (54 percent) of these same people felt that "reconciliation of offenders, victims, and their communities" was a "very important" purpose for the adult system. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents considered "reconciliation" to be a "very important" goal for the juvenile system.

According to Longmire, "The fact that over half of today's Texans strongly support reconciliation along with punishment and incapacitation shows Texans to be both compassionate and conservative in their ideas about how to respond to crimes. The basic ideas behind reconciliation as a foundation for our system of justice derives its roots from the 'victims rights movement' that began in this country in the late 1970s. Its intellectual roots, however, originate in ancient societies."

When asked about their concerns about crime, Texans are generally less fearful of crime today than they were in 1979. Just about one-third (31 percent) of today's Texans said that they were afraid to walk alone at night within one mile of their homes. This figure compares with 54 percent of the respondents to a similar survey conducted in 1979. Twenty three percent of the 1979 sample were afraid to walk alone at night within one block of their homes compared to only 19 percent of today's Texans.

"These findings suggest that Texans are generally feeling more secure in their neighborhoods," said Longmire. "Perhaps this is related to the general drop in crime during the past few years," he said "but there are no questions available to help us identify the specific reasons for the changes."

In addition to measuring differences in fear of crime, the survey included questions about people's tolerance for the use of force by the police, evaluations of the court sentencing practices, and attitudes about the use of probation, prisons, parole, and the death penalty. "Texans seem to be a lot more tolerant of the use of deadly force by police today than they were in 1979," Longmire said. "In 1979, 69 percent of the respondents to the survey were supportive of policies that would allow the police to use deadly force in efforts to prevent crimes of violence. Today, 90 percent would support such policies."

Texans are also more willing to spend money for improved criminal justice services today than they were in 1979. Sixty-four percent of the 1999 sample reported that they would be willing to pay increased taxes for improved police services. This number increased from 47 percent in 1979. Sixty-three percent of today's Texans would be willing to pay increased taxes for improved court services compared with only 35 percent willing to do so in 1979. Similar increases in support for taxes were reported for hiring more judges, improving probation services, and building more prisons.

The full report of the results of the 1999 Texas Crime Poll is available on the Internet. Data was collected by the Texas A&M University's Public Policy Information Center.

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Editor's Note: Copies of the original data set and technical information concerning this survey as well as the results and copies of several earlier surveys completed by the Survey Research Program can be obtained here. Questions can be directed by e-mail to Dr. Dennis R. Longmire or to Longmire by phone at 409.294.1651.

SHSU Media Contact: Julia May
November 8, 1999
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