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Stiffer Jail Sentences to Deter Serious Crime Backed in Survey

November 09, 1987|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — People of all races and ages support stiffer jail terms as the best deterrent for serious crime, according to a nationwide study released Sunday by the Justice Department.

The 1,910 people questioned in the survey believe that criminals convicted of rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, property damage, drunk driving and drug offenses should be jailed for much longer periods than they are now. Researchers at Bowling Green University conducted the study for the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Opinions in the survey, released a week after new federal sentencing guidelines went into effect, mesh with the generally stiffer sentences mandated in the new guidelines.

First of Its Kind

"As far as we know, this is the first national survey of its kind on public attitudes concerning the levels and amounts of punishment for a variety of crimes," said Steven R. Schlesinger, director of the bureau, a research arm of the Justice Department.

Conducted between August and October, the survey set up two dozen crime scenarios and asked participants to set punishment for them.

More than a third of those surveyed were in favor of the death penalty for murders committed during a robbery, rape or assault.

As a gauge of how serious the public considers drug and alcohol abuse, the survey found cocaine trafficking more reprehensible than armed robbery or assault resulting in hospitalization. Cocaine use was worse than thefts of $1,000, and more than half of those surveyed said they would send cocaine users to jail.

Punishing Drunk Drivers

A drunk driver who kills someone should be punished more severely than a rapist who does not otherwise harm the victim, the survey found.

Ninety-four percent of the respondents said rapists should serve at least 15 years in prison. The average rapist released in 1983 served only 4 1/2 years, according to bureau statistics. Similarly, 82% of those surveyed said assaults resulting in hospitalization should draw almost eight years. Actual sentences averaged 2.4 years.

"The public wants long prison sentences for most crimes," the report said, "with other sanctions used for minor infractions of the law or as add-ons to imprisonment."

Illustrating "add-ons," almost everyone questioned in the survey said that in armed robberies of $1,000 or more in which a victim is hospitalized, the robber should be jailed for more than 10 years. Almost half of the respondents said they would also require the convicted criminal to make restitution to his victim.

Deterring the Offender

According to the study, views on punishment "did not vary significantly" because of age, race, gender or geographical region.

Almost 80% said their most important reason for choosing a particular punishment was "to deter the offender from doing it again."

The survey findings are reflected in the new federal sentencing guidelines, which were created by a commission under the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Sentences for drug trafficking, white-collar crime and repeat offenses will lengthen dramatically under the new law.

However, prison space presents a problem. The commission has acknowledged that the new rules will increase the federal prison population from the current 42,000 inmates to 156,000 by the year 2002.

Responding to the survey, Ira Glasser, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, charged the Reagan Administration with exploiting public fears about crime to justify "massive new prison construction."

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