Criminal Justice Surveys and Public Opinion Polls

Surveys and opinion polls conducted by government, academic, or private groups provide snapshots of the workings of the criminal justice system. Collecting information from original sources or coordinating data from existing streams, these studies provide new insights into the effectiveness of policies and programs as well as revealing public perceptions and attitudes. They also serve as benchmarks when measured against past studies and offer guidance for future planning.

This article examines some of the sources for surveys and public polling concerning the criminal justice system. In addition to overview studies about the application of surveys to criminal justice, the selected topics include: crime, criminal histories, death penalty, public defense, sentencing, sex offenses, treatment, and reentry.


Changing Public Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System (Open Society Institute 2002)
“Public opinion on crime and criminal justice has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years. Support for long prison sentences as the primary tool in the fight against crime is waning, as most people reject a purely punitive approach to criminal justice. Instead, the public now endorses a balanced, multifaceted solution that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation in concert with other remedies.”

Federal, State, and Local Governments: Criminal Justice Surveys, Programs, and Censuses (US Census Bureau)
“The Criminal Justice Statistics Branch conducts reimbursable projects for the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). As the data collection agent, we collect data on a range of topics including prison and jail inmate movements, juvenile delinquents and the facilities in which they reside, and sentencing patterns of convicted felons, just to name a few. The US Department of Justice uses these data for research and evaluation, development of policies and procedures, and legislative and funding issues. For additional information on any of the criminal justice surveys, please visit the BJS website at or the OJJDP website at”

Hispanics and the Criminal Justice System: Low Confidence, High Exposure (Pew Hispanic Center 2009)
“The 2008 National Survey of Latinos asked Hispanic adults about their views of the police and courts in their communities, their perceptions of crime and any interaction they or their immediate family members have had with the criminal justice system. The survey was conducted from June 9 through July 13, 2008, among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 2,015 Hispanic adults. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish.”

Public Attitudes Toward Crime and Criminal Justice-Related Topics (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics)
This is collection of recent national statistical surveys of public opinion on capital punishment, crime, courts, drugs, guns, police, public confidence, schools, and other issues.

Public Opinion Versus Public Judgment About Crime: Correcting the ‘Comedy of Errors’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 131-154, 2006
“This paper builds a case for more defensible assessments of informed public opinion on crime control and penal policy. Mass-mediated portrayals of what the public want and ubiquitous self-selected opinion polls serve as common surrogates for informed public opinion. These highly suspect assessments have gained a level of credence in policy debates that is difficult to justify. Innovations like the Deliberative Poll show promise in facilitating what has been called ‘public judgment’-a more reliable and refined state of informed public opinion. Less ambitious remedial proposals, including the public education programmes advocated by some experts and recently embraced by the Home Office, are insufficiently bold to make a significant and lasting impact on public knowledge and attitudes.”

State of the State Survey: Attitudes Toward Crime and Criminal Justice: What You Find Depends on What You Ask (Michigan State University 1997)
“Our survey results show that this image of individual attitudes toward crime and criminal justice as hardened, punitive, and inflexible may be incorrect. Through the use of survey experiments, we find that attitudes toward crime and criminal justice depend on information and context. Depending on these factors, individual attitudes can be changed in either a more punitive or less punitive direction. The lesson to be learned is that traditional survey methods may present a biased image of what individual citizens are willing to support and tolerate when it comes to crime.”

United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems
“The collection of statistics on crime at the international level was first considered in 1853. The Economic and Social Council, in its resolution 1984/48 of 25 May 1984, requested the Secretary-General to maintain and develop the United Nations crime-related database by continuing to conduct the surveys of crime trends and operations of criminal justice systems. The major goal of the United Nations Surveys on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems is to collect data on the incidence of reported crime and the operations of criminal justice systems with a view to improving the analysis and dissemination of that information globally. The Survey results will provide an overview of trends and interrelationships between various parts of the criminal justice system so as to promote informed decision making in administration, both nationally and cross-nationally.”


National Crime Victimization Survey (BJS)
“National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is the Nation’s primary source of information on criminal victimization. Each year, data are obtained from a nationally representative sample of 76,000 households comprising nearly 135,300 persons on the frequency, characteristics and consequences of criminal victimization in the United States. The survey enables BJS to estimate the likelihood of victimization by rape, sexual assault, robbery, assault, theft, household burglary, and motor vehicle theft for the population as a whole as well as for segments of the population such as women, the elderly, members of various racial groups, city dwellers, or other groups. The NCVS provides the largest national forum for victims to describe the impact of crime and characteristics of violent offenders.”

Public Opinion on Youth, Crime, and Race: A Guide for Advocates (Open Society Institute 2001)
“This advocacy guide summarizes the public opinion research on youth and juvenile justice issues from the Building Blocks focus groups and national poll, as well as other polls. Unless otherwise noted, detailed findings discussed below are from the Building Blocks poll. After summarizing the public opinion research, this advocacy guide makes recommendations about how advocates can frame the issues in their work (focusing on effective messages and messengers), and how they can use this information in their organizing and advocacy efforts.”


Public Attitudes toward Uses of Criminal History Information (BJS 2001)
“Presents the results of the first national survey of public attitudes towards use of criminal history information for a variety of purposes. The survey was designed by Alan Westin, a noted expert on issues relating to privacy and uses of sensitive data in the private and public sector. The survey specifically addressed public attitudes toward use of criminal record data in various employment situations, opinions on uses of arrest vs. conviction data, and attitudes toward collection of fingerprint data.”

Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2006 (BJS 2008)
“This survey report, the most comprehensive data available on the collection and maintenance of information by state criminal history record systems, describes the status of such systems and record repositories at yearend 2006.”

Survey of State Records Included in Presale Background Checks: Mental Health Records, Domestic Violence Misdemeanor Records, and Restraining Orders, 2003 (BJS 2004)
“Examines the quality and accessibility of certain criminal and noncriminal records when States conduct a firearm presale background check. The report covers State mental health records, domestic violence misdemeanor records, and restraining orders. It also describes impediments to access for these types of records during a firearm presale background check. This is one of a series of reports published from the BJS Firearm Inquiry Statistics (FIST) project, managed under the BJS National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP).”


Crisis of Confidence: American’s Doubts About the Death Penalty (DPIC 2007)
“According to a national public opinion poll conducted in 2007, the public is losing confidence in the death penalty. People are deeply concerned about the risk of executing the innocent, about the fairness of the process, and about the inability of capital punishment to accomplish its basic purposes. Most Americans believe that innocent people have already been executed, that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, and that a moratorium be placed on all executions.”

Death Penalty (Gallup)
This is an historical analysis of the public’s views on the capital punishment.

Death Penalty Public Opinion Polls (
“Collection of public opinion surveys conducted by various organizations concerning views on capital punishment from 1998 to present.”

Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists, 99 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 489 (2009)
“The question of whether the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than long-term imprisonment has been debated for decades or longer by scholars, policy makers, and the general public. In this Article we report results from a survey of the world’s leading criminologists that asked their expert opinions on whether the empirical research supports the contention that the death penalty is a superior deterrent. The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.”

Survey of the Federal Death Penalty System (DOJ 2002)
“This Survey provides information regarding the federal death penalty system since the enactment of the first modern capital punishment statute in 1988. The Survey explains the Department of Justice’s internal decision-making process for deciding whether to seek the death penalty in individual cases, and presents statistical information focusing on the racial/ethnic and geographic distribution of defendants and their victims at particular stages of that decision-making process.”


Defense Counsel in Criminal Cases (BJS 2000)
“This Special Report examines issues of legal representation for defendants in Federal district court and large local jurisdictions, and inmates in local jails and Federal and State prison. It also briefly describes types of publicly financed programs available to both Federal and local defendants. Data are from the Administrative Office of the US Courts Federal Defender Services (1994-1998), 1998 Administrative Office of the US Courts Criminal Master File, BJS State Court Processing Statistics (1992, 1994, and 1996), BJS National Survey of State Court Prosecutors (1990, 1992, and 1994), 1996 Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, and 1997 Surveys of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities.”

Developing a Message for Indigent Defense: Analysis of National Survey (Open Society Institute/NLADA 2001)
“This report of the survey analysis identifies the currents of opinion relevant to building public commitment to indigent defense. The report is organized into three sections: 1) an overview of the research; 2) recommendations for developing a message on indigent defense; and 3) detailed findings on the public’s attitudes toward indigent defense and developing a national message. The appendices contain a complete questionnaire with survey results and a detailed methodology.”

Indigent Defense (BJS 1996)
“This report presents selected findings drawn from various BJS surveys containing information related to the indigent defense for criminal defendants. Twenty-eight percent of State court prosecutors reported in 1992 that their jurisdiction used public defender programs exclusively to provide indigent counsel. In 1990, State and local governments spent approximately $1.3 billion on public defender services. In 1979, this figure was about $300 million. In constant 1990 dollars, State and local expenditures doubled for public defense from 1979 to 1990. About three-fourths of the inmates in State prisons and about half of those in Federal prisons in 1991 received publicly-provided legal counsel for the offense for which they were serving time.”

Indigent Defense Services in Large Counties, 1999 (BJS)
“This report details the methods by which criminal indigent defense is delivered in the Nation’s 100 most populous counties. It compares the operating expenditures, staffing and caseload of public defender, assigned counsel, and contract services used in these counties. The criminal indigent defense programs examined in the report primarily handled felony criminal cases at the trial level.”

State-Funded Indigent Defense Services, 1999 (BJS)
“Presents findings from data collected as part of the 1999 National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems in the 21 States where the State government provides virtually all of the funding for indigent defense services. It examines the type of defender programs used in the 21 States and how the programs are organized. State operating expenditures for criminal indigent services are presented in the aggregate and by program type. Staffing and caseload data also are presented for public defender, assigned counsel, and contract attorneys programs.”


Attitudes of US Voters toward Nonserious Offenders and Alternatives to Incarceration (NCCD 2009)
“In April, 2009, NCCD commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national public opinion poll about American voter attitudes toward our nation’s response to nonviolent, nonserious crime. The results of this poll showed that striking majorities favor using methods other than incarceration to respond to nonserious crime.”

National Sample Survey Public Opinion on Sentencing Federal Crimes (USSC 1995)
“This is a report on how Americans would sentence persons convicted in the federal criminal courts. It is based on a probability sample of 1,737 American households. One adult aged 18 or over in each household was interviewed face-to-face and asked to state the sentence he or she would give to each of a set of 42 persons, each described in a short vignette as having been convicted of one of a variety of specific criminal acts. The answers given are summarized and analyzed in this report, constituting measures of Americans’ views about appropriate punishment for convicted criminals.”


Public Opinion and the Criminal Justice System: Building Support for Sex Offender Management Programs (CSOM 2000)
“Public opinion has the power to shape legislation, funding decisions, and the political landscape related to the community supervision of sex offenders. Given this, those working in the field of sex offender management must understand public sentiment about their work, provide citizens with accurate information, and recognize the public as a legitimate partner in deciding how to effectively manage sex offenders, in order to prevent future victimization. However, many practitioners have implemented mandated sex offender legislation and developed specialized supervision and treatment programs without considering the impact of public opinion on these new laws or practices. This brief draws on the experiences of jurisdictions that have incorporated public opinion into their response to sex offenders, as well as lessons learned from jurisdictions that have utilized public opinion to influence other criminal justice system policies and practice”


National Criminal Justice Treatment Practices Survey: An Overview of the Special Issue, J Subst Abuse Treat. 2007 April; 32(3): 221–223
“In 2002, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) established the Criminal Justice Drug Abuse Treatment Studies (CJ-DATS), a 10-center research network designed to conduct directive research studies aimed at improving our understanding of treatment services for adults and youth in the justice system (Fletcher & Wexler, 2005). One of the first efforts of the new CJ-DATS cooperative was a national survey on the nature and prevalence of substance abuse treatment programs and services offered to drug-involved offenders throughout the criminal justice system.”


Attitudes of US Voters toward Prisoner Rehabilitation and Reentry Policies (NCCD 2006)
“In February, 2006, NCCD commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national public opinion poll about American attitudes toward rehabilitation and reentry of prisoners into their home communities. Except where noted, the questions pertained to prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug or property offenses. The results of the poll showed that striking majorities favor rehabilitation as a major goal of incarceration. The public appears to recognize that our current correctional systems do not help the problem of crime, that prisoners face enormous barriers to successful reintegration to the community, and that rehabilitative services should be provided as a means of reducing crime.”

Public Attitudes Towards Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, Public Opinion Quarterly 2004 68(2): 275-286
“This paper presents experimental survey results about Americans’ attitudes towards the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Two long-term trends in public opinion provide the backdrop: strong public support for conservative anti-crime policies, and growing public support for civil rights and civil liberties for most groups. We find that 80% favor restoring voting rights to former felons once they complete their sentences, 60% support voting for parolees and 60-68% for probationers. Only 31%, however, favor allowing current prisoners to vote. In the clash between the desire to punish and the desire to protect the civil liberties of unpopular groups, we find greater public support for the latter view.”


Bureau of Justice Statistics (US Dept of Justice)
“The United States’ primary source for criminal justice statistics,” its mission is “To collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government. These data are critical to Federal, State, and local policymakers in combating crime and ensuring that justice is both efficient and evenhanded.”

Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)
“The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue. The Center is widely quoted and consulted by all those concerned with the death penalty.”


“Gallup has studied human nature and behavior for more than 70 years. Gallup’s reputation for delivering relevant, timely, and visionary research on what people around the world think and feel is the cornerstone of the organization. Gallup employs many of the world’s leading scientists in management, economics, psychology, and sociology, and our consultants assist leaders in identifying and monitoring behavioral economic indicators worldwide. Gallup consultants help organizations boost organic growth by increasing customer engagement and maximizing employee productivity through measurement tools, coursework, and strategic advisory services. Gallup’s 2,000 professionals deliver services at client organizations, through the Web, at Gallup University’s campuses, and in 40 offices around the world.”

Open Society Institute
“The Open Society Institute works to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. To achieve its mission, OSI seeks to shape public policies that assure greater fairness in political, legal, and economic systems and safeguard fundamental rights. On a local level, OSI implements a range of initiatives to advance justice, education, public health, and independent media. At the same time, OSI builds alliances across borders and continents on issues such as corruption and freedom of information. OSI places a high priority on protecting and improving the lives of people in marginalized communities.”

Pew Hispanic Center
“Founded in 2001, the Pew Hispanic Center is a nonpartisan research organization that seeks to improve understanding of the US Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos’ growing impact on the nation. The Center does not take positions on policy issues. It is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ in Washington, DC that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a public charity based in Philadelphia.”

Pew Research Center
“The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does so by conducting public opinion polling and social science research; by reporting news and analyzing news coverage; and by holding forums and briefings. It does not take positions on policy issues.”
“’s subscriber pages contain state-by-state election poll data: campaign polls, media polls, academic polls, and polls by political, business and public-interest groups. We track US Senate and gubernatorial races, hot US House contests, the presidential race, important ballot initiatives. Coverage includes candidate match-ups, job and favorability ratings, reelect questions, and more. New surveys are added as they are released. Data are from primary sources only — not cribbed from wire stories, blogs or tip sheets.”
“ is a nonprofit, nonpartisan online news site that practices journalism in the public interest by reporting on emerging trends and issues in state policy and politics. Each weekday,’s staff of professional journalists chronicles the top developments in all 50 states. We then connect the dots through our original reporting and graphics to spot and analyze developments of national significance taking shape in the states. Our goal is to enlighten public debate on topics of importance at the state level, including health care, taxes, immigration, social policy, education, energy, environment, criminal justice, homeland security, transportation and elections. has published each weekday since Jan. 25, 1999, with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit organization that applies the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems.”

US Census Bureau
“The Census Bureau serves as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy. We honor privacy, protect confidentiality, share our expertise globally, and conduct our work openly. We are guided on this mission by our strong and capable workforce, our readiness to innovate, and our abiding commitment to our customers.”

Zogby International
“Zogby International is constantly searching, testing and measuring hypotheses and principles on polling and public opinion research. Working with a panel of psychologists, sociologists, computer experts, linguists, political scientists, economists, and mathematicians, we explore every nuance in language and test new methods in public opinion research. It is this investment in time and money for research and development that makes us a leader in the public opinion field.”

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