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Keywords:

  • public opinion;
  • theories of punitiveness;
  • racial animus;
  • crime-control policy

The sustained movement to “get tough” on crime, especially through mass imprisonment, has prompted several prominent efforts to explain the public's harshness toward crime. From the extant literature, we demarcate the following three competing theories of public punitiveness: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model. Controlling for other known predictors of crime-related opinions, we test the explanatory power of these perspectives to account for support for the death penalty and for a punitive crime-control approach. Our analysis of a national sample of respondents surveyed in the 2000 National Election Study reveals partial support for each model. Racial animus, however, seems to exert the most consistent effect on public sentiments. This finding suggests that racial resentments are inextricably entwined in public punitiveness and thus should be incorporated into any complete theory of this phenomenon.