to be the case, because respondents were specifically instructed that the sentence they selected was to be "the actual amount of time you want the convicted offender to spend in prison."

Although there are marked differences between public preferences with respect to prison sentences and the actual time served by offenders, the same is not necessarily true when it comes to statutory punishments or the sentences imposed by judges. Blumstein and Cohen (1980) report considerably greater congruence between preferred prison sentences and those imposed by judges in Pennsylvania. Warr et al. (1982) found that the median prison sentences selected by samples of four Arizona cities were typically below the statutory maxima, although this occurred in part because the statutory maxima include life for a rather large number of offenses in Arizona.


If the perceived seriousness of offenses is the major determinant of preferred punishments, there is evidence that individuals also attend to characteristics of the offender and victim in deciding on appropriate punishments for crimes. The punishments recommended for juveniles are consistently lower than those for adults (Warr et al., 1982, 1983; Jacoby and Dunn, 1987), although elderly offenders are treated with somewhat greater lenience than other adults (Jacoby and Dunn, 1987). Male offenders are given more severe sentences than females (Jacoby and Dunn, 1987), and repeat offenders are treated more harshly than first-time offenders (Blumstein and Cohen, 1980; Jacoby and Dunn, 1987). The most severe penalties are also reserved for crimes in which the victim is very young or very old, and in which the victim is female (Jacoby and Dunn, 1987).

In addition to features of the victim and offender, respondent characteristics influence the severity of preferred punishments. Sanction severity increases with the age of the respondent and declines with educational attainment. Whites tend to assign more severe sanctions than blacks (particularly when it comes to the death penalty; see Vidmar and Ellsworth, 1982), and there is limited evidence that males desire more severe sanctions than females, although not for all offenses (see Jacoby and Dunn, 1987; Vidmar and Ellsworth, 1982; Blumstein and Cohen, 1980; Thomas et al., 1976).

Although the punishments desired by the general public are affected by characteristics of the offender, victim, and respondent,

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