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Empirical Evidence and Public Perception about Crime

In the consensus view, a behavior is believed to become a crime when there is sufficient, widespread support or agreement in society that the behavior ought to be labeled as a crime. For this idea to have relevance with respect to assumptions concerning the scientific validity of the concept and measurement of crime, one would expect that “widespread agreement” would be defined by setting a measurement standard that defines widespread agreement. Consensus researchers, to our knowledge, have not addressed this issue (except see, Miethe 1982, 1984; Cullen et al. 1985). The condition can be simply stated by asking a question: what is the empirical definition of widespread agreement? For example, we could specify the percentage of the public that ought to agree for consensus to emerge. A simple majority, one could argue, is not consensus, since the idea of consensus implies widespread agreement. So, when does a majority become widespread enough to constitute consensus? Moreover, what does agreement actually mean (Miethe 1982, 1984)? Studies that examine consensus may ask people about the criminal law. However, those studies fail to consider that agreement has multiple dimensions and that acts that are not included as crimes may share widespread public support for criminalization (Miethe 1982, 1984). For example, Shelley, Chiricos, and Gertz (2011) determined that certain environmental acts should be considered crime and were given higher seriousness scores than many of the acts already labeled as criminal. Thus while a sample of people may agree about those behaviors prohibited by the criminal law, they may also agree that there are behaviors that the criminal law ought to recognize as crimes but does not. This point illustrates that criminologists, drawing on the history of their discipline, have a tendency to understand the concept of crime in ways that the public does not. In fact, the public may not appreciate the differences between the kinds of crimes they are being asked to address, nor do they necessarily know that the terminology of the criminal law only applies to certain kinds of behavior or to individuals and not corporations.

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