A growing body of research recognizes that people’s policy opinions are not simply positive or negative, but instead derive from a variety of positive and negative beliefs related to a political issue. This research expands this insight by explaining the variability in support for punitive anti-crime policies among black Americans. Data from a nationally representative survey of black Americans (n = 515) are used to show that a majority of blacks are conflicted between a strong desire to reduce crime and perceptions of widespread racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. Using a heteroskedastic item response theory model, I demonstrate that conflict between these beliefs results in far greater variability around their support for punitive, but not preventative policies. Both the conflict and variability of many black Americans’ preferences on punitive anti-crime policies complicates their ability to clearly voice their support for or opposition toward punitive policies and likely limits the ability of elected officials to represent members of this community.
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This argument might not apply to all preventative policies. Blacks who are concerned about crime and perceive racial discrimination might lack intra-issue constraint regarding preventative policies implemented by discriminatory institutions such as increasing police patrols, hot spot policing, or expanding the scope of law enforcement (e.g., wiretaps).
Weights were derived using a raking algorithm. The interviews averaged approximately 15 min. The survey instrument was subject to several rounds of pre-testing including face-to-face interviews with a small number of black undergraduate students. Additional sample details can be found in Ramirez (2014).
All of the punitive items have a negative correlation with the preventative items ranging between −0.01 and −0.22. The correlation between an additive index of the punitive items and an additive index of the preventative items is −0.24.
The models were also estimated with the measure of internalized conflicted developed by Alvarez and Brehm (2002). The estimates from those models are similar to those reported here.
Although it’s possible to combine the items into a single indicator using data reduction techniques (e.g., factor or principle components analysis), these techniques erroneously assume that a change from response category 1 (e.g., strongly favor) to response category 2 (e.g., favor) on a specific question (e.g., support for the death penalty) is the same as moving from response category 3 (e.g., oppose) to response category 4 (e.g., strongly oppose) on the same question. They also assume that a change from response category 1 to response category 2 on a question (e.g., support for the death penalty) is the same as a change from response category 1 to response category 2 on a different question (e.g., support for tougher parole). These assumptions can result in inefficient estimates and nonsensical predictions (McDonald 1999).
In addition to examining any jumps in the optimization algorithms, convergence was assessed by examining the profile likelihood plots for the coefficients and re-estimating the models with various starting values.
Estimating the crime concern variables separately rather than the index shows that blacks who “worry” about crime are more likely to support preventative policies. The rest of the individual crime concern variables show no relationship with policy support.
Thanks to one of the anonymous reviewers for this insight.
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Thanks to Kim Fridkin and the manuscript reviewers for many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this research. I would also like to thank Josh Thompson, Amanda Wintersieck, Babek Rezaee, and the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University for providing research assistance on the project.
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Ramirez, M.D. Racial Discrimination, Fear of Crime, and Variability in Blacks’ Preferences for Punitive and Preventative Anti-crime Policies. Polit Behav 37, 419–439 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-014-9285-1
- Public opinion
- Criminal justice