Recently, the concept of “generation” has received considerable commentary in academic and popular circles. Millennials—ages 24 to 39 on Election Day 2020—have gained particular attention due to the generation’s size (more than 75 million), spending power (about $1.3 trillion per year), and growing political influence. Accordingly, a host of studies from disciplines such as business, education, political science, and psychology have investigated the nature and possible distinctiveness of Millennials’ beliefs and behaviors. Only limited research, however, has been undertaken exploring the possible effects of generational membership on crime and criminal justice issues. This dissertation seeks to help close this void in the literature.
This omission in the research is consequential considering the impact that Millennials’ public opinion might have on the future of the U.S. criminal justice system. Notably, American corrections is in the midst of a historic policy turning point from offender exclusion to offender inclusion. For four decades, the United States was enmeshed in a punitive era during which offenders were removed and/or ostracized from society through exclusionary policies (e.g., mass incarceration, punitive laws, expansion of debilitating collateral sanctions). Beginning around 2010, however, a paradigmatic shift occurred marked by a halt in the growth of prison populations and the spread of inclusionary policies (e.g., prisoner reentry programs, criminal record expungement).
In this context, one way to prognosticate if the current changes are likely to continue into the future is to examine Millennials’ views on corrections. If this large generation is supportive of offender inclusion, then its members are likely to be political force favoring progressive policies and reforms as they proceed across their life course. Based on a 2017 opt-in internet panel survey conducted by YouGov (N = 1,000), this dissertation assesses the nature of Millennials’ correctional policy opinions and compares these to the views of other generations.
The levels of support for 13 correctional policies are reported, and generational differences are estimated through multivariate analyses. Three correctional themes are explored: (1) public support for punitiveness (the death penalty, court harshness, and punishment as the goal of prisons); (2) offender rehabilitation, reentry, and reintegration (restoration of civil rights, fair-chance hiring, reducing collateral sanctions, expungement of criminal records, general attitudes toward expungement, having the FBI review criminal records); and (3) offender redemption (formal redemption rituals, redeemability). As a result, this study presents the most comprehensive assessment of what Millennials think about American corrections.
The main findings of this dissertation are twofold. First, as a generation in and of themselves, Millennials are only modestly punitive but clearly supportive of progressive policies. Millennials favor a rehabilitative correctional orientation, believe in offender redeemability, and prefer policies that reduce exclusion and increase inclusion. Second, generational differences in public support for correctional policies are limited. Regardless of generation, the respondents tend to embrace inclusionary policies. Thus, in the future, Millennials will likely seek to transform the current correctional turning point into a lengthy era of progressive reform—a project that will be similarly endorsed by Americans of all generations.