The role of Punitive Attitudes in the criminal justice system

The importance of public attitudes towards people in the criminal justice system cannot be denied. In modern democracies, the legitimacy of the criminal justice system depends on the willing participation of members of the public (Viki & Bohner, 2008). The public’s willingness to support the criminal justice system depends strongly on their attitudes towards the criminal justice process (Viki, Culmer, Eller, & Abrams, 2006; Wood & Viki, 2004). As is well known, the USA has increasingly become more punitive and exclusionary over the last thirty years. According to some scholars (Yeomans, 2010), this recent focus on punitiveness and social exclusion have resulted from the interconnections between the media, public opinion and legislative changes. One important aspect of understanding such interconnections is the tendency to dehumanize (Haslam, 2006) people who get involved in criminal justice and in the prison system.

Dehumanizing language and misrepresentative imagery are often used to address and describe people in prison and those formerly incarcerated. The spectacularization of criminal trials, together with false depictions of institutional life in and by the media has provided a misleading and individualistic image of people touched by the criminal justice system, by depicting them as “bad” individuals who willingly break the law and harm others for the sake of their own interest or pleasure. Such misrepresentative imagery has fueled subconscious negative beliefs about people who go to jail or prison within public opinion.

Altogether, the dehumanization and, derivatively, the mistreatment of people in prison largely impedes their rehabilitation and is not conducive to their successful reentry back into society. If criminality is viewed in essentialistic ways and people in prison are regarded as irredeemable criminals and unworthy of acceptance (Dreisinger, 2016), then public attitudes are likely to be negative about their actual social rehabilitation and reintegration (Kury & Ferdinand, 1999). Examples from Northern Europe endorsing restorative approaches to crime have shown significant success.