Vol. 8 No. 1 (January 1998) pp. 36-37.

Loretta Stalans.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. 337pp. $65.00 Cloth. 
ISBN 0-8133-2318-5.

Reviewed by Ruth Ann Strickland, Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, Appalachian State University, E-mail: Ruth Ann Strickland <strcklndra@appstate.edu>.

Following up on the theme that public concern about crime is at an all time high, this book goes beyond serving as a compendium of public opinion polls on crime and justice. Instead, it provides a more in-depth understanding of public views of crime and justice in the United States and other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Given that public opinion is important to criminal justice policy making --as illustrated through periodic law and order messages in political campaigns and politicians' usage of public opinion to justify their stances on criminal justice policy issues-- this book provides a timely analysis that counsels caution when interpreting the meaning of public opinion polls on crime and justice and wariness about using public opinion poll results to justify public policy agendas.

To obtain a deeper understanding of the public views of crime and justice, the authors focus almost exclusively upon Americans' knowledge of crime and justice. Although public opinion and attitudes toward crime and justice are analyzed in representative surveys, focus group analyses, and deliberative polls, the authors are careful to integrate experimental and quasi-experimental research as well as correlational research. Arguing that public knowledge of crime and criminal justice policy responses is often overlooked by researchers, they lead off this analysis with a chapter on "Public Knowledge of Crime: Myths and Realities (Chapter 2).

In laying out their conceptual framework, the authors reveal an ambitious agenda. This book covers a vast array of topics including:

As one can see, there's something in this book for everyone: the public, criminal justice professionals, and academics.

Most revealing about public knowledge of crime and legal reforms are Chapters 1 and 2. In these chapters, the authors illustrate that there are gaps in public knowledge about crime. They distinguish between misperceptions that can be documented and crime myths (which may be widespread but have not yet been the topic of a public opinion poll). Five of the nine typical public misperceptions include:

The authors summarize research that indicates that the public knows little about specific laws, the insanity defense, the sentencing process and sentencing practices, alternatives to incarceration, prison life, and costs of incarceration versus costs of community supervision. They conclude that the general public has strong opinions about crime and justice based on a low level of knowledge.

On the topic of crime seriousness, the authors find that the consensus model (rather than the conflict model) best explains how people view the seriousness of various crime categories. They note, however, that social consensus is more likely at the extremes (i.e. murder being the most serious and jay walking being the least serious). Chapter 5 provides an important metaevaluation on how the public processes information on crime and justice--in particular, how context, time pressure, prior knowledge and stereotypes affect responses to public opinion surveys. In sum, the findings and literature reviews/summaries in this book are too numerous to cover here. The first five chapters are critical and readers might focus on others according to their specific interests.

The authors deftly sidestep a methodological black hole by avoiding the literature on the public's fear of crime. Although this literature is interesting, operationalization of the concept-public fear of crime is riddled with problems and the findings are so contradictory and inconclusive as to render a lot of this research almost useless. Avoiding this quagmire was a wise move on the part of the authors. In addition, this book is a gold mine for those who would like to tackle some tough research questions; the authors provide ample suggestions for future research at the end of Chapters 5, 7, 10, 11 and 14.

In their conclusions, the authors ask the criminal justice system to lead an education campaign so that the public can more accurately and realistically assess the problems facing criminal justice organizations and also avoid pushing for counterproductive crime repressive legislation. They authors also claim that educating criminal justice professionals about the "true nature" of public opinion is essential.

Primarily, this book is a compilation and evaluation of surveys and research conducted on public opinion/knowledge of crime and justice. Its purpose, as identified in the introduction, is met and the book provides a well organized, thoughtful, and clearly written analysis of the topics chosen. It also supplies food for thought for future researchers and will serve as an essential reference tool for its intended audience.

Copyright 1998