How do Americans rate the performance of their criminal justice system? One indication comes from responses to a survey question that has been routinely included in the General Social Survey: In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals? Responses to this question have been remarkably consistent and uniformly negative in recent years. From 1975 to 1987, the proportion responding "not harshly enough" has fallen within a narrow band, from 79 to 86 percent. As we might deduce from these numbers, there is a great deal of consensus across subgroups of the population. Although younger persons and minority members are less negative in their evaluation of the courts, the differences are quite small, typically no more than 5-10 percent (see Flanagan and Jamieson, 1988). The GSS question does not probe respondents about their sources of dissatisfaction with the courts, but it is reasonable to surmise from our earlier discussion that the principal source of dissatisfaction lies with the sentences meted out to offenders.
If Americans appear to have little confidence in the courts, the same is not true when it comes to the police. Survey evidence consistently indicates that Americans tend to hold favorable attitudes toward the police. In four Gallup surveys conducted between 1977 and 1985, no less than 85 percent of respondents rated the "honesty and ethical standards" of policemen as "average" to "very high" (Gallup, 1985). In a 1986 Media General/Associated Press poll, 59 percent of respondents rated the performance of the police in their community as "good," whereas 31 percent rated it ''fair" and 8 percent "poor" (Flanagan and Jamieson, 1988). Such favorable performance evaluations are also typical among those who have had reason to call the police. Data from a 1982 national survey conducted for ABC News show that, of the 35 percent of respondents who had called the police during the prior year, 72 percent reported that the police had responded within "a short time" (McGarrell and Flanagan, 1985). In the same survey, majorities of respondents said that they had a "great deal" or a "good amount" of confidence in the ability of the police to prevent (61%) or to solve crimes (60%).
Although public confidence in the police appears to be quite strong, it is not universal. Blacks (and according to some measures, younger persons) are substantially less likely than whites to hold favorable evaluations of the police (see Walker, 1983). For example, whereas 60 percent of whites in the 1986 Media General/Associated Press poll rated the performance of local police as