Neighborhood context of attitudes toward crime and reentry

Date01 January 2011
Published date01 January 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Punishment & Society
13(1) 64–92
! The Author(s) 2011
Neighborhood context
Reprints and permissions:
of attitudes toward
DOI: 10.1177/1462474510385629
crime and reentry
Andrea Leverentz
University of Massachusetts Boston, USA
While much recent attention has been focused on the impact of incarceration on
ex-prisoners, less has been paid to the general public’s informal attitudes and responses
to crime and offenders. This article begins to fill this void by exploring the impact of
individual and neighborhood characteristics on attitudes toward crime and prisoner
reentry. The article is based on two phases of data collection. During phase one,
residents of four Massachusetts communities were surveyed about their attitudes
and experiences with crime and prisoner reentry. During phase two, qualitative inter-
views and participant observation were used to explore how crime and reentry issues
are framed across community context. The survey data suggest both that individual-
level predictors (e.g. political affiliation, sex, parenthood, and several crime-related
factors) of punitiveness are significant, and that there is a neighborhood context to
these beliefs. The focus in analyzing the qualitative data is on two contrasting commu-
nities. These data suggest varying ways of framing ‘the crime problem’ that help explain
the neighborhood context of these attitudes. Specifically, a localized framing shapes less
punitive attitudes, while a focus on a general crime problem contributes to greater
neighborhood, public opinion, punitiveness, redeemability
One consistent f‌inding in research on public attitudes toward crime is that direct
experiences with victimization are a poor predictor of punitive attitudes (King and
Maruna, 2009: 151). Rather, attitudes seem to more accurately ref‌lect general
Corresponding author:
Andrea Leverentz, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Boulevard,
Boston, MA 02125, USA

concerns about crime or society more broadly. This anxiety may ref‌lect, and be
ref‌lected in, public support for the rapid increase in incarceration in the past
40 years. Scholars have argued both that the support for rising incarceration
rates ref‌lect anxiety over economic and social changes and that they ref‌lect instru-
mental attempts to address concerns over rising crime (Useem et al., 2003). These
policies also help shape public perceptions and stereotypes about crime. For exam-
ple, perceptions about incarceration policies and incarcerated populations can neg-
atively impact members of stereotyped groups (e.g. young African American men),
independently of their criminal history (Pager, 2003).
Within our limited understandings of attitudes toward crime, we know even less
about the neighborhood context of such attitudes. Crime, of‌fenders, and ex-prison-
ers tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods that are characterized by high rates of
poverty and other social disadvantages, and that have sizeable populations of
African Americans (Lynch and Sabol, 2001; Sampson, 2000). Evidence suggests
that a concentration of formerly incarcerated individuals undermines neighbor-
hood stability, creates a demand on resources, contributes to fear of crime and
negative af‌fect toward the neighborhood, and may contribute to ex-prisoner recid-
ivism (Clear, 2002; Kubrin and Stewart, 2006; Mears et al., 2008; Petersilia, 2003).
This neighborhood concentration of former prisoners also may shape attitudes
toward crime and criminals.
This study builds upon this research to analyze how attitudes toward crime,
of‌fenders, and punishment are shaped by both individual factors and neighbor-
hood context. In particular, this article engages with two recent studies carried out
in the United Kingdom. Maruna and King (2008; King and Maruna, 2009) con-
ducted a multi-method study of punitiveness in south-east England. The f‌irst phase
of their study was a postal survey of attitudes toward crime and punishment. From
this survey, they selected and interviewed respondents who scored particularly high
and particularly low on their punitiveness scale (Maruna and King, 2008). Their
primary focus has been correlates and predictors of punitive attitudes, including
generational anxiety and attributions of the causes of crime (King and Maruna,
2009; Maruna and King, 2008). Bottoms and Wilson (2004: 366) build on the
Maruna and King study, asking ‘how residents of high crime communities view
the of‌fenders who live in their midst’. Using a survey instrument modeled on that of
Maruna and King, Bottoms and Wilson surveyed residents of two high crime, high
of‌fender, and high deprivation neighborhoods in Shef‌f‌ield, England. They followed
this formal survey with participant observation and semi-structured interviews
(Bottoms and Wilson, 2004). Bottoms and Wilson found signif‌icant variation in
punitiveness between the two neighborhoods, suggesting that punitiveness is not
merely a ref‌lection of living in a high crime neighborhood. They hypothesized that
these dif‌ferences might ref‌lect variation in ‘signal disorders’ (e.g. youth hanging
around, graf‌f‌iti, visible drug traf‌f‌ic), negative attitudes toward multiculturalism,
social threat, or perceptions of social control.
The present study consists of a pilot survey of residents in four Massachusetts
communities chosen to represent varying levels of crime and reentry salience and

Punishment & Society 13(1)
qualitative interviews and observations in two of the four communities. The survey
addresses experiences with and opinions of crime and reentry and how these issues
vary across individual-level factors, such as demographics, victimization, crime
salience, and political views, and across neighborhood context. Ordinary Least
Squares (OLS) regression analyses of the survey data address the question of
whether or not there are neighborhood dif‌ferences in punitiveness and a belief in
the redeemability of of‌fenders, controlling for individual-level predictors. The qual-
itative data are then used to explore reasons for community dif‌ferences in puni-
tiveness, with a focus on how the local framing of ‘the crime problem’ inf‌luences
Public attitudes toward crime
A substantial body of literature has documented that the general public supports
severe punishment of lawbreakers, such as long sentences, mandatory minimum
sentences, three strikes laws, and capital punishment (Baumer et al., 2003; Cullen
et al., 2000; Maruna et al., 2004; Tyler and Boeckmann, 1997). Two common
explanations for these ‘get tough’ punitive public attitudes about crime and pun-
ishment are expressive and instrumental. Expressive punitiveness ref‌lects a concern
for declining moral values and social cohesion. Several studies have emphasized the
importance of core beliefs and expressive predictors on support for community-
based corrections (Cullen et al., 1985; Maruna and King, 2004; Tyler and
Boeckmann, 1997; Tyler and Weber, 1982). Punitive attitudes toward crime, in
this view, ref‌lect anxieties over massive social changes, like the civil rights and
women’s movements. These general anxieties then take the form of racially
coded crime rhetoric and punitive policies (Cullen et al., 2000; Useem et al.,
2003). In contrast, punitiveness may be an instrumental response to a generalized
fear (accurate or not) of rising crime (Useem et al., 2003). In one study of college
students, for example, practical, instrumental concerns were better predictors of
behavioral attitudes than were value-expressive beliefs (Demski and McGlynn,
1999). While there is some evidence of this generalized fear inf‌luencing attitudes,
personal victimization has been consistently unrelated to punitive attitudes (Cullen
et al., 1985; King and Maruna, 2009; Unnever et al., 2007; Useem et al., 2003).
Evidence is mixed on the importance of individual factors such as sex, educa-
tion, and political af‌f‌iliation on attitudes toward crime (Cohn et al., 1991; Cullen
et al., 1985; King and Maruna, 2009; Thomas et al., 1976). These mixed f‌indings
ref‌lect in part variation in question wording (Cullen et al., 2000). For example,
women are signif‌icantly less likely than men to favor the death penalty, and more
likely to believe that the courts are too lenient, that we spend too little to halt crime
and that we spend too little on law enforcement (Useem et al., 2003). When survey
respondents are given more information and more options, they tend to be less
punitive (Cullen et al., 2000).
Apparent contradictory f‌indings also ref‌lect the complexity of the issue.
For example, a belief in redeemability is a related, but distinct, concept to

punitiveness. A belief in redeemability is a belief in an of‌fender’s ability to ‘go
straight’ or stop of‌fending, given the desire and support to do so (Maruna and
King, 2009). While Maruna and King (2009) found a strong and negative relation-
ship between a belief in redeemability and punitiveness in their British sample, a
belief in the possibility of redemption is not mutually exclusive to a desire for harsh
penalties. Cullen and colleagues (2000) argue that the public support both punitive
and progressive policies, and there is still widespread support for rehabilitation.
They conclude, ‘a distinctive feature of corrections-related opinion is that citizens
want of‌fenders to be punished and rehabilitated’ (Cullen et al., 2000: 48).
There is evidence of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT