Fear and Punishment Research Paper

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Since the 1960s fear of crime and attitudes towards punishment have become increasingly pertinent to the field of criminology and criminal policy. The availability of new methodologies in the social science, such as victim surveys, made these phenomena measurable and thus allowed for comparisons between groups and across time. In some ways these research methods played an important role in creating these topics in the first place. Especially in the USA, but also in other countries, politicians discovered the use of fear of crime to govern and control people. Crime policy can be simple in so far as people who are “fearful” generally ask for harsher punishments of the offenders, particularly after severe cases of crime. Politicians argue for harsher laws and sentencing policies as the “solution,” especially for violent or sex crimes. Studies have shown repeatedly that measurements of fear of crime and of attitudes toward punishment tend to substantially overestimate both traits in the population.


During the previous four decades, fear of crime and, subsequently, attitudes toward punishment have become increasingly important research topics in criminology. This research served as a backdrop for discussions of punitiveness in Western Europe. Imprisonment rates, development of penal law, sentencing behavior of penal courts, and public attitudes toward punishment are key elements of punitiveness which exert strong influences on criminal-political decisions (Dijk 2011). The increase in the number of prisoners in some countries, particularly the USA, has to be seen as political decisions influenced by media reports of citizens’ fear of crime, their attitudes toward punishment, and their demand for more severe penal policies. Empirical criminological research has documented these developments, and some studies have found that fearful citizens are more punitive; consequently, in conjunction with other variables, fear of crime creates harsher attitudes toward offenders.

This section provides an overview of the important research results on fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment from different countries. Both of these phenomena are complex, undertheorized, and often measured only through few survey items (see Matthews 2005). In western countries in recent decades, the broad discussion of fear of crime in criminology, but also in the media, has led some scholars to the conclusion “that fear of crime is now recognized as a more widespread problem than crime itself” (Bannister and Fyfe 2001, p. 808). Since the beginning of the 1990s, the ongoing discussion of related practical issues, such as community crime prevention in Germany, occurred against the background of an increasing awareness of fear of crime in the public. This discussion has to include a consideration of the problems inherent in the methodologies used so far in the measurement of fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment. As shown, the measurement of fear of crime is vulnerable to political manipulation. This contributes, as some authors point out, to a “governing through crime,” discussed particularly in regard to the USA, but also in Western European countries (Baker 2010).

Empirical Research About Fear Of Crime And Attitudes Toward Punishment

As Lee (2001, p. 467) points out: “Since the late 1960s the ‘fear of crime’ has progressively become a profoundly engaging field of study for criminologists and other social researchers.” Meanwhile, fear of crime has become a subdiscipline of criminology with an extensive body of literature, special chapters in college textbooks, and summarizing publications. The discussion began in the United States in the context of race riots of the 1960s and 1970s and increasing problems with violence in large metropolitan areas, particularly in neighborhoods with predominantly ethnic minority populations. In the 1960s social scientists began to develop a new research method, that is, population surveys, to collect information regarding people’s perception and emotional responses toward criminality, fear of crime, and attitudes toward punishment. It was relatively easy to formulate questionnaire items and to find people willing to respond since crime was and continues to be an intriguing topic. An increasing number of surveys on crime, victimization, fear of crime, and attitudes toward punishment among the public brought these topics to the center of attention. The increasing discussion about victims of crime led to the establishment of a new subfield, victimology, “But it was the victim survey that, by providing data about the extent and severity of such fear, pinpointed a new area for criminological enquiry” (Zedner 2002, p. 425). The problem with the construct of fear of crime can be linked to a weak cognitively anchored attitude, meaning that respondents are likely to have only a rather vague perception of “their” personal fear of crime or none at all. Therefore, when asked to answer items in a questionnaire regarding such issues, these people are responding from a basis of limited awareness or personal reflection.

By the late 1960s an increasing number of organizations began to ask individual people about their experiences with crime victimization and possible effects such as fear of crime or attitudes toward punishment focusing on particular groups such as the elderly, young people, women, or foreigners (Lee 2001, pp. 475f). These surveys revealed that the dark figure of crime is higher than previously assumed, and at the same time, they provided extensive new information about the “effects” of crime. The number of victim surveys increased particularly in the United States and regularly included questions regarding fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment. Already in 1965 the National Opinion Research Center asked a sample of as many as 10,000 households, followed by similar surveys conducted by the Bureau of Social Science Research in Washington 1967. Ennis (1967) discovered in the first nationwide representative survey in the USA results which were confirmed on the international level in subsequent decades – namely, that women and the elderly express more fear of crime than men or younger people. The US President’s Crime Commission also engaged in crime/victim surveys with the result that the USA and other countries, such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, carried out regular National Crime Surveys. “Through these surveys the scope of public concern about crime was ‘discovered’ empirically for the first time” (Lee 2001, p. 476). Zedner (2002, p. 425) points out: “Ironically, carrying out victim surveys increases sensitivity to the risk of crime. Situating questions about fear within a survey may consequently elicit higher levels of anxiety than would otherwise be the case.” Vanderveen (2011, p. 40) points out for the Netherlands that “‘fear of crime’ is rooted in statistics and surveys by the Dutch government: without statistics, there would be no ‘fear of crime’ in the Netherlands as we know it today.”

So the problem of fear of crime – and punitive attitudes toward punishment – was created, at least partly, by the research itself and by the manner in which the survey items were framed. The results of these surveys were discussed in the media, and so people “learned” how fearful of being victimized they really are. The media realized that such reports interest people, so they presented this information often in a distorted, sensationalized manner.

At the end of the 1980s, Dijk et al. (1990) founded the first international victim survey, the “International Crime Victims Survey – ICVS.” This new data set represents significant progress since we now have reliable international comparative data available that include the dark figure of crime as well as fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment. So far this survey has been carried out five times, in 1989, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2005 in a number of different countries using the same basic questionnaire and research methodology (Dijk et al. 2007).

As a result of these different ICVS surveys, extensive data sets on fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment are now available not only from the western industrialized world, but also from developing countries. Nevertheless, Arnold (1991, p. 87) cautions: “Although fear of crime has interested social scientists for over two decades, and despite the fact that considerable research work has been done in the field of correlates of fear of crime, results have been inconsistent, inconclusive, and far from unequivocal.” The main reason for the different and partly controversial results in the data on fear of crime as well as in attitudes toward punishment can be seen in the unclear definition of these concepts and the differences in measuring it. “Even the understanding of the term fear of crime and how it should be indicated or measured is not commonly accepted” (Arnold 1991, p. 88).

Zedner’s (2002, p. 425) observation that “… although fear of crime is closely related to levels of crime and tends to increase as crime rises, it cannot be seen as a mere function of crime rates” has to be further specified. In fact, the correlation between fear of crime and crime rates has been shown repeatedly as being relatively low, with the exception of countries or cities with high rates of (violent) street crimes. On the background of the worldwide results of the International Crime and Victimization Surveys, Zvekic and Alvazzi del Frate (1995, p. 28) point out that “there is some correlation between the rates of assaults/threats and robberies and fear of crime… the higher the crime rates are, the higher is the feeling of insecurity” (here in regard to Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America). This is not surprising as, generally, people are informed about developments of criminality through media which tend to present distorted and sensationalized views, focusing on extreme and rare cases of violent and/or sex crimes. Only in regions or cities where people experience victimization as part of their daily lives do we find a strong correlation between crime rate and fear of crime. For instance, Zvekic and Alvazzi del Frate (1995, p. 27) have found such results for specific cities with high rates of street crime, such as Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg.

Dijk and Vollaard (2012) analyzed data from different waves of the International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS) for 15 countries and compared the actual rate of victimization of burglary against the perceived risk of burglary, that is, a cognitive aspect of fear of crime, for that year. These data provide the foundations for a model of “the aggregate crime rate as the outcome of an interaction between potential offenders and potential victims,” focusing on domestic burglary. The results of the study show that fear of crime is strongly related to the actual crime rate for burglary. They found a strong positive correlation between the rate of victimization of domestic burglary and the perceived risk of victimization. This relationship can be shown both across the 15 countries and over time within the different countries. Increasing rates of burglary had the effect of an increasing investment of people in home security. These higher levels of home security, in turn, are related to lower percentages of successful burglary attempts in the future. Therefore, the authors conclude that “precautionary behavior is an important factor in understanding aggregate crime trends.” A reduction in officially registered crimes can be a result of more effective preventive measures by citizens. “The empirical evidence suggests that regulating built-in security is not only an effective policy but also a relatively cheap way of reducing crime compared to more traditional crime policies such as strengthening law enforcement or rehabilitation of offenders” (Dijk 2008).

The concepts of fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment, as operationalized in most research, are influenced by a number of different variables. A representative survey, for example, from East and West Germany in 1991/1992, that is, just after the reunification of both parts of the country, showed that the fear of crime rate in the Eastern part was substantial and significantly higher than the rate in West Germany. At the same time the official crime rate in East Germany was about one third to one half of that in the western part. The results show clearly the weak influence of crime rates on fear of crime. Over subsequent years the official, registered crime rate increased significantly in the Eastern part of Germany until it reached the rate of West Germany in 2000 – at the same time the fear of crime rate decreased noticeably. Obviously other factors besides crime rates are influencing the fear of crime.

The same case can be made for attitudes toward punishment. The former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was, like other former Soviet states, rather punitive in comparison to West Germany or other western countries; the state propaganda taught people that it was necessary to be harsh toward offenders to reduce crime. The death penalty was abolished in GDR in 1987, in West Germany 1949. In contrast to western countries, only few alternatives to harsh sanctions, such as crime prevention or victim offender restitution, existed and were seldom used. As Niggli (2004, p. 192) points out, punitive attitudes in the general public are to a large extent shaped by the values in the society, the prevalent practices of sanctioning, and the character of the public debate about the problems in society surrounding crime. According to Niggli, the new punitive turn in many countries is a response to far-reaching changes in the context of globalization, particularly the opening of borders in Europe and increased migration. In recent decades new problems emerged that led to a discussion of western societies as “risk societies.” These problems include changes in the employment structure, an increasingly extreme income disparity, and a decline of the social security system (p. 196).

After German reunification western penal law was introduced in former East Germany which implied more lenient sanctions and corresponding reports in the media. The people had new experiences. Although the GDR experienced a significant increase in crime rates in the beginning of the 1990s, a decade later, fear of crime indicators as well as attitudes toward punishment had changed and become more lenient. However, some interesting exceptions illustrate the salient influence of public debate. Over the last three decades, a heated public discussion about rape in matrimony emerged, and stricter laws were enacted as a result. This was not the case in GDR. So after reunification West Germans were more punitive than the East Germans in this regard. Subsequently, East Germans were influenced by the media about this discussion and became more punitive as well. This development stands in contrast to a comparable debate on illegal drugs. Possession had been punished severely in the former GDR, whereas West Germany had more lenient penal policies, especially in regard to soft drugs. After reunification, as a result of public debate, East German attitudes also became increasingly lenient in this issue.

In contrast to countries like the USA, Great Britain, or the Netherlands, Germany has no regularly conducted representative crime or victimization surveys. There are only individual surveys with different samples and methods, so the results are only partially comparable. But there is a private insurance company which has conducted such representative surveys on “Fears of the Germans” using the same methodology every year since 1991. The survey inquires about different fears, including fear of crime (R+V Infocenter 2012). The results show that since 1991 the fear of crime is higher in the former East Germany than it is in the west of the country and this fear has been increasing over the last two decades. In 1991 24 % of West Germans indicated any fears (like unemployment, political situation, illness, or crime), while the rate for East Germany was 28 %. In 2011 the values were 42 % in West and 47 % in East Germany.

It is striking that out of the 16 registered fears, fear of crime has, over time, moved into the background, while other fears, such as increases in costs for living, unemployment, insufficient funds for retirement, or politicians’ inability to solve the country’s problems, moved into the foreground. In 2011, fear of crime, out of all fears, placed on the second to last position on this scale. So while other fears increased, the significance of fear of crime, as part of an overall sense of anxiety, diminished. Yet this interpretation of these empirical results requires caution. Zarafonitou (2011, p. 61) discusses Greece which, according the EU-ICVS, had a particularly high rates of fear of crime over the last two decades compared to other EU states. She points out that “significant social changes have occurred” in this country, “the most important of which were the mass entry of immigrants as well as the recent economic crisis.”

During the Soviet era, former Soviet states had, in comparison to western countries, a significantly lower (official) crime rate, more punitive penal laws, and more severe sentencing policies. Also, the population had more punitive attitudes toward offenders; at the same time, the fear of crime rate was regularly lower than in western countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the (official) crime rate increased in most countries, while the economic situation worsened, that is, the unemployment rate in many of these countries increased while the helping – as well as controlling – function of the state declined. With this background the fear of crime rate also increased significantly.

These results indicate that fears are more focused on general fears about the economic and political situation in a country, the living conditions, etc. and that fear of crime, as we measure it in victim surveys, is a mixture of these different fears – only part of it really is a fear of crime. Against the backdrop of the dramatic changes in the former Soviet countries, these fears are higher in those countries than in western countries, while their actual crime rate might be lower. The fact that East Germans voted for harsher penal laws to fight crime might not necessarily be interpreted as a higher level of punitiveness in the population, but rather as an expression of general dissatisfaction with the political and social situation.

As Krajewski (2006, p. 490) points out, the punitive attitudes in post-communist countries are based on the strict sentencing practices of the courts as well as the generally conservative, rigid, and intolerant attitudes of the former Soviet system, which the regime presented to the public via the mass media. It is often overlooked that the “will of the society,” which continues to be cited by communist politicians as the reason for their partially absurd ideas regarding penal policies, is a result of the propaganda in the media regulated by them (Krajewski 2006, p. 490). Klaus et al. (2011, p. 267) point out, “that communist criminal law was exceedingly punitive and penalisation was a basic means to counteract undesirable social problems.” Reports about crime were seldom published in the media of the former Soviet countries, and, if so, the reports were one-sided and biased. Such politics promote the development of punitive attitudes.

A more punitive attitude toward offenders in the former Soviet countries is also illustrated in a number of different articles in a collection by Kury and Shea (2011). Krajewski (2006, p. 490) points out that intolerance and punitive attitudes are discussed in the scientific literature only very broadly. With regard to Poland he shows that according to surveys in 1987, 74 % of the population felt their country was safe. In 2004, this rate declined to 33 % (p. 489). According to the results of the ICVS (Dijk et al. 2007), Poland participated regularly in different waves of these recurring surveys. Since 1992, the surveys revealed increasing punitive attitudes in the population. In 1992, 31 % supported sentencing a juvenile recidivist burglar to a prison term. In 1996 the value declined to 17 % but increased again in 2005 to 34 %. In 1964, 50 % of the population supported the death penalty for severe offenders; in 2002 this percentage increased to 77 %. The new penal law from 1998 abolished the death penalty, but since then this new law has been strongly criticized by the media and by members of different political parties. This widespread and harsh critique continues today in the context of very conservative politics. The opponents of the new regulation postulate more repressive responses toward offenders similar to the practices in the USA and Great Britain. Politicians and the media publicize these demands regularly which exert an influence on the population. Consequently, in 1993 67 % of the public supported a reintegration of offenders into society as a central theme of crime policy. But in 2002 the percentage declined to 17 %. Likewise, 1993, the protection of human rights for prisoners was supported by 40 % of the public, but declined to 6 % 2002. According to Krajewski (2006, p. 504), there is no doubt that today the Polish criminal justice system is among the most punitive in Europe. Danilov et al. (2011) report a punitive tendency in Russia. Saar (2011, pp. 345f) points to high levels of punitive attitudes in Estonia. More specifically, the actual crime rate in Estonia increased significantly between 1991 and 2001, but decreased again from 2002 to 2009. At the same time, the fear of crime rate in Estonia decreased from 1993, when 49 % of those surveyed felt unsafe walking alone in the street at night, to 28 % in 2009 (p. 353). These results show high rates of punitiveness in these former Soviet countries which do not correlate with the actual crime rates. The penal practices of a country, that which are considered “usual” in sentencing and frequently discussed in the media as being a necessary reaction to crime, have an effect on the attitudes of the public. A conservative and restrictive Polish government has been asking for harsh punishment on crimes. It requires time, new experiences, and valid information to change the attitudes of people.

Criminologists were able to show in their research that a more detailed understanding of the background of criminal behavior and of offenders reduces harsh attitudes toward felons. Hough and Park (2002) in their research project asked people about possible ways to reduce crime. After completing a preliminary survey, the research subjects participated in a 2-day seminar where underlying reasons for crime and criminal behavior were discussed. Subsequently, the participants retook the survey and did so again 10 months later. In both times their punitive attitudes had declined substantially compared to the initial survey. This illustrates again the conclusions that more knowledge about crime and criminals reduces punitive attitudes.

In spite of a worldwide trend to reduce the use of the death penalty, some countries still practice it, among western countries most notably the USA. In Europe, only Belarus continues to use this form of punishment with support of the public. In the USA 34 states allow the death penalty, but the number of persons executed has declined from 99 in 1999 to 43 in 2011. A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners “found that a clear majority of voters (61 %) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.” The majority supported alternatives to the death penalty: 33 % voted for capital punishment, 39 % for life without parole plus restitution, 13 % for life without parole, and 9 % for life with parole (6 % no opinion) (Death Penalty Information Center 2012, p. 4). That means 52 % of the participants in the US survey voted for life imprisonment without any chance of release. Critics point out that life without parole is also an exceedingly cruel punishment, comparable to the death penalty. Consequently, the USA has to be seen as a particularly punitive country, in spite of the reduction in the number of executions in recent years. A disproportionate number of those executed are poor and African American.

While at the beginning of the twentieth century nearly all countries used the death penalty, today only 58 of them have such legal provisions. In 2010 only 23 countries worldwide actually executed people. A Gallup International survey from 2000 asked samples of the population in 59 countries about their attitudes toward the death penalty. Only 52 % of all persons surveyed supported capital punishment. Citizens from regions where the death penalty was used more often also supported capital punishment at higher rates: 66 % in North America, 63 % in Southeast Asia, 60 % in Eastern Europe, 54 % in Africa, 37 % in Latin America, and 34 % in Western Europe where this practice is fully abolished.

In West Germany the death penalty was abolished 1949. At that time, according to a 1996 survey by the Institut fuer Demoskopie Allensbach (1996), 74.8 % of the population supported the death penalty. Over subsequent years the support for the death penalty among the West German population declined to about 50 % in the 1960s and dropped further to about 30 % in the beginning of the 1970s. In the context of the murders committed by the Red Army terrorists, support for death penalty peaked at nearly 45 % by end of the 1970s and then declined again to between one quarter and one third today (Kury et al. 2004, p. 65).

The ICVS presents comparable data about fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment from a number of different countries. Zvekic and Alvazzi del Frate (1995) discuss the results for developing countries. According to their data in the 1990s, the “safest regions are Asia and North Africa, while the highest levels of insecurity were registered in Sub-Saharan Africa… and Latin America.. .” (p. 27). They also found “some correlation between the rates of assaults/threats and robberies and fear of crime… the higher the crime rates are, the higher is the feeling of insecurity (Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America). However, high levels of precautions adopted when going out after dark (avoiding certain areas that are considered dangerous and asking somebody for company) do not necessarily mean that respondents feel unsafe and are also adopted in the low-crime regions. They may just as well reflect the cultural pattern of an outgoing style which is not directly related to fear of crime” (p. 28). This finding again calls attention to methodological problems in measuring fear of crime.

In regard to attitudes toward punishment, Zvekic and Alvazzi del Frate (1995, p. 48) summarize that “there is a high degree of agreement among the population in the developing world that the most appropriate sanction is imprisonment: more than 50 % in all the regions, and even more than 70 % in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.” Despite some countries’ favor for community service, like in Argentina and Brazil, “Punitiveness prevails in the developing world” (p. 48).

An analysis of ICVS results for 18 EU countries since 1992 found an average of 26 % of the sample, across all surveys and all countries included, felt unsafe walking in the street after dark in their own residential area (Dijk et al. 2007, p. 66). In 2005 this rate was more or less the same at 28 %. But the differences between the countries are immense. The highest rate of fear was found in Greece (2005) where 42 % expressed fear of crime. Also very high rates of fear were registered among the population in Luxembourg (2005, 36 %), Italy (2005, 35 %), and Portugal (2005, 32 %). On the other end of the spectrum were Finland (2005, 14 %), Denmark (2005, 17 %), and the Netherlands (2005, 18 %). In Estonia, Poland, the Netherlands, and Finland, the fear of crime rate decreased starting in the 1990s, but in the United Kingdom it increased (2000, 25 %; 2005, 31 %); the same occurred in Belgium (1992, 20 %; 2005, 26 %) and Sweden (1996, 11 %; 2005, 19 %).

In regard to attitudes toward punishment, the average percentage of the public in the different countries opting for imprisonment of the young recidivist burglar in 2005 was 24 % and for community service 49 %. So the majority supported alternative sanctions for the offender. But the difference between the countries was again very high. In the United Kingdom 52 % of those surveyed agreed with a prison sentence, while this percentage was only 38 % in Ireland and 34 % in Poland (here including labor camp). On the other end of the scale, the percentage in France was only 13 %, the same as in Austria, and 15 % in Portugal, while Germany’s was 19 % (see also Dijk 2011, p. 218). At the same time, the rates for community service were highest in 2005 for France (68 %), Portugal (68 %), and Luxembourg (68 %) and lowest for Greece (27 %), United Kingdom (29 %), and the Netherlands (37 %). The development of community service orders shows some shift over time. “For instance, those in the Netherlands in 2000 were less in favor of a community sentence than they were in 1989. In contrast, there was more support in Belgium and Finland in 2000 than in 1989. Between the 1996, 2000 and 2005 sweeps, though, there was little change” (Dijk et al. 2007, p. 87).

Dijk et al. (2007, pp. 89f) compare national attitudes toward sentencing with rates of imprisonment for different countries. “In the Western world, those countries where the public clearly favors imprisonment, such as the USA and the UK, tend to have comparatively higher prisoner rates.” The authors found on the basis of the ICVS data within the EU context, “a very weak and statistically not significant relationship between public opinion on sentencing and the actual level of prisoner rates. The three new member countries, Hungary, and especially Poland and Estonia, stand out with prisoner rates far above the EU average while public attitudes in these countries are only slightly above the middle range. In these transitional countries public attitudes have shifted over the past 10 years away from imprisonment toward community service orders. Public opinion in these countries is now broadly in line with the EU majority point of view. Actual sentencing policies seem still to be comparatively punitive, although.. . levels of conventional crime are not excessively high in any of the three countries.”

Criminological research shows clearly that fear of crime rates and attitudes toward punishment have different trajectories in different countries, and both are particularly influenced by the political debate, the economic situation, and media reporting on crime – but also by the way of measurement.

Measurement Problems

Fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment are exceedingly complex concepts, yet they are measured in many cases with one or a few items only. The “standard item” for fear of crime is: “How safe do you feel walking alone in your area after dark?” Here crime is not mentioned so the background for the response can include other causes such as darkness or aggressive animals. But other surveys used different forms of assessment (Farrall and Ditton 1999, p. 58) such as the following: “In your everyday life, are you afraid of someone breaking into your home?” When the questions are framed so differently, the results are hardly comparable.

Attitudes toward punishment are also often measured by asking about the level of acceptance of the death penalty or by presenting a special criminal case and asking about suggested reactions (see the ICVS, Dijk et al. 2007, p. 98). Empirical explorations of complex concepts such as attitudes toward punishment cannot lead to any degree of precision nor provide any adequate results when assessed with one or a few items only. Even if the results of such polls do tell us something about the attitudes toward punishment, or at least about certain of its aspects, it is not clear to what extent these results apply. They certainly do not mirror “the” attitudes toward punishment, even if they are often presented as such (Kury and Obergfell-Fuchs 2008, p. 280). These items only embrace single aspects of the unclearly defined concepts. Mostly the authors of studies in this field lament the methodological problems, but nevertheless use the old items more or less in a similar way. Usually the questionnaires have to be short, so one or a few items are used to measure the concepts. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the results of these surveys are often contradictory.

Farrall et al. (1997) have pointed out that the customary standard polling techniques, based on standard, closed questionnaires, have led to a significant overrating of the fear of crime. In particular, comparative qualitative studies, providing more thorough analyses of the indicated fear values, have called into question the results of quantitative questionnaire surveys. Farrall et al. (1997, p. 658) remark that from the outset fear of crime as well as victimization experiences have been almost exclusively the domain of quantitative studies, leading to results that suggest “that fear of crime is an overriding social problem.” It is only in recent years that these results have been increasingly questioned by more differentiated studies. On the background of their own research, using quantitative and qualitative methods, Farrall et al. (1997, p. 3) conclude that closed inquiry systems as used by most polls, especially by big-scale surveys, consistently and substantially overestimate fear of crime. Based on a comparative survey in Germany, Kury and Obergfell-Fuchs (2008) came to the same conclusions and were able to validate the English results. In another research project they found similar results concerning attitudes toward punishment (Kury et al. 2009). About half of the sample which had been classified as punitive based on a survey with a standardized questionnaire appeared nonpunitive in the face-to-face interviews. The research subjects responded with higher levels of punitiveness on the questionnaire to express other problems, which were outside the focus of the survey.

Some authors found a “risk-fear paradox” indicating that some population groups, such as women and the elderly, have low victimization rates but high levels of fear of crime, while men and the young generally have relatively high levels of victimization, but low levels of fear of crime. Some authors explain this paradox as a consequence of measurement problems. “Historically, victim surveys have produced problematic data that suggested a weak correspondence between fear and risk” (Zedner 2002, p. 426). Instead, over the last several decades, researchers have increasingly “attempted to identify the social structural causes of people’s fear” (Zedner 2002, p. 426).

Increasing numbers of studies over the last several decades have shown that “fear of crime” is related to general fears or feelings of insecurity which generally are not assessed separately in surveys consisting of standardized questionnaires. What we call “fear of crime” is obviously a mixture of different types of fear, feelings of insecurity, worries, anxieties, or perception of various risks. “Fear of crime” emerges not only through reports about or experiences of (severe) crimes, but also through the socioeconomic situation in the neighborhood, living conditions, or signs of increasing incivility. “Fear of crime may operate as a ‘sponge,’ absorbing all sorts of anxieties about related issues of deteriorating moral fabric, from family to community to society. People may use the language of ‘worry’ and ‘crime’ to express connecting conflicts, insecurities, and anxieties” (Jackson 2006, p. 261). As the German surveys by R+V Infocenter (2012) clearly show, since 1991 fear of crime has moved increasingly in the background and other “fears” related to social changes and living conditions in society increased. Zarafonitou (2011, p. 50) discusses the background of high rates of fear of crime in Greece in comparison with other EU countries and points out that the “research evidence in Greece reflects the association of citizens’ insecurity with the perception of the quality of their everyday life as degraded as well as their dissatisfaction with the state services, and in particular with the police effectiveness, in this field. In this context, the interpretation of the examined phenomenon will be based on the fundamental assumption that a feeling of general social insecurity is expressed through fear of crime.”

The same conclusion holds true for attitudes toward punishment. Here also the standardized polling of attitudes toward punishment, used in virtually all victim surveys, raises considerable methodological problems. Kury et al. (2004) proved in his experimental research project that survey results are influenced by the order and number of alternatives provided to a question about sentencing. In a randomized sample of three groups, each group was presented with the same questions about sentencing of different crimes. Only the possible options for responses to the questions differed. Group A was presented with five different sanction alternatives ranging from lenient to punitive and was asked to choose one of them (the options included private restitution, mediation by an official mediator, punishment with or without restitution). Group B was presented with the same questionnaire, but with the options listed in reverse order (from punitive to lenient). Group C was presented again with the same questionnaire as the first group, but with three additional options (no reaction to the crime, fine, imprisonment). The effects of the different methodologies on the results of the surveys were so pronounced that the results were not comparable, especially in criminal cases that were not severe. For example, in the case of theft, 72.4 % of group A voted for alternative sanctions, but only 20.8 % in group C did so; instead, 22.5 % of this group C voted for no reaction, an option not provided for the other two groups. In case of homicide 38.1 % of group A voted for alternatives as did 18 % of group B, but only 7.5 % did so in group C; again, their options for alternative measures were different. In the case of using public transport without paying for the ticket, 58.1 % of group A and 53.5 % of group B voted for alternative sanctions, in contrast to only 4.2 % in group C and of those 36.7 % opted for “no reaction.” These findings show that the answers are influenced significantly by the way the items are presented; if we do not present “no reaction” as an option in the survey, the participant cannot inform us that he/she does not really suggest any alternative reaction, but to simply do nothing.

Political Relevance Of Fear Of Crime And Attitudes Toward Punishment

With fear of crime among the citizenry political actions can be initiated and justified, that is, the research results on this topic have tangible consequences. Fear of crime is, since we measured it, a very politicized topic. This can be seen in the development of the discussion and changing reactions to crime in the USA since the beginning of the 1970s (Lee 2001). Against the backdrop of a “perceived growing lawlessness in the USA,” the public “was becoming anxious about the steadily climbing crime rate.” Criminologists measured this development and “calls for tougher action in terms of policing, disciplining and punishing criminals began to grow” (Lee 2001, p. 476). All over the world and throughout history, the most favored reaction to crime has been (stricter) punishment. The USA had a dramatic increase of punitive reactions toward crime, and consequently, penal laws and sentencing policies became stricter with the effect that the incarceration rates climbed as did the costs of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In 1965 President Johnson set up the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (LEAA) “that was supposed to produce solutions to the crime problem in a non-political, non-partisan environment” (Lee 2001, p. 477). The commission was charged with investigating the reasons for the crime increase at the time and with discerning the societal factors responsible for it. The 1967 report of the commission, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society” (Harris 1969, p. 15), emphasized the “real” background of an increasing crime rate which was neglected in subsequent decades by politicians in favor of increasing stricter reactions to crime. “To speak of controlling crime only in terms of the work of the police, the courts, and the correctional apparatus is to refuse to face the fact that widespread crime implies a widespread failure by society as a whole” (Harris 1969, p. 16). The background of crime was seen here first and foremost as rooted in the social conditions, but over the following decades the causal attribution moved to the offenders themselves who were now seen as individually responsible for their behavior.

In the USA fear of crime, individual responsibility for (criminal) behavior and socioeconomic status, as well as penal policies are highly racialized. Young black males are particularly feared, yet they are also the most victimized group, that is, their homicide victimization rate is five times that of whites. Penal policies, particularly the war of drugs, have led to disproportionately high incarceration rates among this group; that is, it is currently seven times higher than that for whites, or one in three African Americans ages 20–29 is under some form of correctional supervision (Kuhlmann 2011). Sheldon (2010, p. 92) has called this new racial disparity in prisons “the New American Apartheid.”

Fear of crime, combined with the historical mythology of the American West and corporate interests such as the National Rifle Association, contributed to constitutionally secured gun laws which allow individuals in many states not only to own and carry guns but to do so while concealing them. This mixture has proven particularly disturbing recently in the two shootings of black youths by private white citizens who felt threatened by the young men. It is unlikely that the white shooters will be convicted or even go to court.

Lee (2001) explains the development of the politics of crime over subsequent decades in the USA when politicians “learned” to use fear of crime as a tool for governing. It became popular to announce ever harsher punishment as a means to reduce the (severe) crime rate and to use the population’s “fears of crime” to win elections. Thus, “governing through crime” became a pattern of penal politics not only in the USA but, as Garland (2001) demonstrates, also in Great Britain. The effect was that penal law became increasingly harsh in most western industrialized countries, a development which also applied to sentencing (the criminal justice systems in Eastern European countries were already much more severe) (see the chapters in Kury and Shea 2011). People ask for harsher punishment, politician creates stricter laws, and, as a result, people “learn” that they are right and the politicians have “understood”; this is a self-sustaining feedback loop (Lee 2001, p. 480). The resulting high levels of incarceration created economic and political interests groups, the prison-industrial complex, which includes not only construction businesses for the large number of new prisons but the producers of technologies, products, and services required to operate these. Defense industry giants like Westinghouse are retooling and lobbying Washington for their share of the domestic law enforcement market, for many rural area prisons are becoming the primary form of economic development, and advertising industries have found a new market. These businesses are so successful that they were identified as the sixth fastest growing industry in the USA in 2010.

Over the last few years, a debate erupted in Germany concerning the question of a “punitive turn,” the possibility of a “new Punitiveness” in that country (Pratt et al. 2005). There are, in fact, a few signs for a “governing through crime,” but overall, the attitudes toward punishment in Germany have been relatively stable over recent years; in comparison to previous decades, people express more lenient attitudes today (Kury and Obergfell-Fuchs 2011).

The discussion about more punitive attitudes toward crime regularly starts after particularly serious crimes, such as the cases in Oslo, Norway, or London, England, in 2011 or in Toulouse, France, in 2012. The Norwegian President reacted with a cautionary message of not allowing this crime to diminish the freedoms in the country and for the population and politicians to react quietly and rationally. In contrast, the prime reactions in Great Britain and France were to create stricter penal laws and to increase the penalties. Without considering if this reaction actually was the best way to reduce such types of crime, politicians assumed that this was what the people wanted to hear most – after all, the population generally is unor misinformed and the politicians tell them what the right reaction is supposed to be.


Beginning in the late 1960s, western countries have been involved in an expanding discussion about fear of crime. Evolving new research methodologies made comparisons between different groups and countries possible. Early on in this debate, politicians found ways to use this fear to further their own interests, especially to win elections. Crime policy in this context is simple: especially after the occurrence of a severe crime, a discussion starts about increasing punishment; people become more punitive and believe that crime can be reduced through more severe reactions to it.

Because fear of crime has such a strong impact on crime policy, it is important that criminological research results are valid and methodologically sound. The research experiences on this topic over the last decades reveal that the results for fear of crime and also for attitudes toward punishment are not always exact. Methodological studies show clearly that surveys with standardized questionnaires, often measuring fear of crime and attitudes toward punishment with single items, strongly overestimate the “fear of crime” rate and the desire for harsher punishment. These results are used to support wrong political actions, namely, harsher penal policies. What we measure with “fear of crime” is often more or less a mixture of different fears, insecurities, and worries about social conditions. If people are better informed about the underlying causes of crimes and the effects of punishment, as well as the resulting costs of imprisonment, fear of crime is reduced and attitudes toward punishment become less punitive. Citizens need to be informed that some level of crime is a “natural” aspect of each society and cannot be completely eliminated; instead, fears can also protect people from dangerous behavior. Criminologists have a responsibility to produce valid results to facilitate rational discussions about these topics. There needs to be more information available to the public as to the actual reasons for the prevalent crime rates as well as possible ways to reduce crime to rational levels. Stricter penal policies generally do not lead to this goal; instead people need to understand the connection between societal conditions and crime.


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