reduced the perceived wrongfulness—but not the perceived harmfulness—of criminal acts.

Apart from the relation between the victim and the offender, do other characteristics of the victim or offender (e.g., their age, sex, or occupation) affect seriousness ratings? The evidence on this question is limited, but highly suggestive. Drawing on the NSCS, Wolfgang et al. (1985:30) conclude that the "more vulnerable or weaker the victim is viewed as compared to the offender, the greater the severity of the act." Thus, for example, a man stabbing his wife to death is perceived to be more serious than a wife who does the same to her husband (39.2 versus 27.9). Both offenses, however, are perceived to be less serious than the death of a child at the hands of a parent (47.8).

The notion that judgments of seriousness are affected by the relative vulnerability of the victim is not surprising, particularly in view of the fact that statutory definitions of crimes often consider the victim's vulnerability (e.g., age, sex, and physical or mental handicap) in determining the seriousness (e.g., degree) of the offense and the attendant penalties. However, it remains unclear why stranger offenses should be perceived as more serious than nonstranger offenses. Perhaps individuals typically presume that violence between intimates is more likely to have been provoked than violence between strangers or that violence between intimates is often the outcome of deep and long-standing disputes. Perhaps, as Rossi et al. (1974) note, stranger offenses are simply less "understandable" than violence between intimates.

Much of the seriousness literature has been aimed at assessing the degree of social consensus on the seriousness of crimes. Because legal and social reactions to crimes are so strongly contingent on their seriousness, it is important to determine the extent to which the general public shares similar perceptions of the seriousness of crimes. Evidence from a variety of sources (see especially Rossi et al., 1974; Hamilton and Rytina, 1980; Wolfgang et al., 1985) has consistently indicated a high degree of social consensus on the relative seriousness of crimes. That is, the seriousness ratings assigned to crimes by any one population subgroup (e.g., males, blacks, the young) tend to be highly correlated with those of other subgroups. However, although the ordering of crimes is largely invariant from one group to the next, some differences in the absolute values of seriousness scores have been observed for certain crimes or demographic groups. Summarizing their analysis of the NSCS, Wolfgang et al. (1985:vi) report that "blacks and members of other racial groups in general assign lower scores



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement