News Release

Study: Support high for laws named for victims who are female and of color

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Crime and Justice Research Alliance

Naming a law after a victim of crime can boost support for the law by symbolically positioning supporters on the side of the victim. As efforts to pass so-called apostrophe laws (e.g., Caylee’s Laws, Megan’s Law) rise, a new study examined whether naming legislation after a victim boosts public backing for such laws and the punishments associated with them. The study found that naming a law after a victim increased support for the law and the punishment authorized, with more support for laws named for female victims of color.

The study, by a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

            “Despite the potential symbolic, political, and practical importance of naming a law after a victim, I wanted to determine whether this practice influences public opinion about the law itself,” explains Kelly M. Socia, associate professor of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who conducted the study.

            Researchers have studied the “identifiable victim effect,” but there has been little direct research on whether naming a law after a victim influences public support for either the law itself or the punishment it authorizes.

            Socia surveyed a national sample of 1,000 U.S. adults. He examined whether support for a proposed distracted driving law was influenced by whether the law was named after a victim and/or the named victim’s characteristics (age, race, gender). Then he examined whether support of the punishment authorized by the law was influenced by victim naming or the named victim’s characteristics. The study was part of a larger survey that collected data from an online panel-based survey of 1,000 U.S. adults commissioned by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Public Opinion and administered by YouGov from August 20-25, 2020.

            Socia chose distracted driving—when the driver of a vehicle uses a cell phone to talk, text, or surf the web for example—because it is very common in the United States and has significant public safety consequences. Accidents and deaths from distracted driving have increased substantially over the last two decades, causing more than 3,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2018. Yet distracted driving continues, despite a variety of laws targeting it, including some that bear the name of a victim (e.g., in Michigan and New Jersey).

“While distracted driving may not represent the typical violent crime targeted by named laws, it is a common form of deviance responsible for substantial and widespread public safety concerns,” notes Socia. Studying distracted driving laws also allowed him to avoid laws targeting heinous or rare crimes, punishments for which the public already largely supports unconditionally, regardless of whether laws are named after victims.

Respondents considered a vignette about an unnamed state legislator proposing a bill to implement dramatic new penalties for driving while using a cell phone without a hands-free device. Respondents were randomly assigned to consider one of nine possible conditions: One condition involved an unnamed law, while the other eight involved a named law in response to the death of a specific person who was killed while walking on a sidewalk after being struck by a distracted driver who was checking email on a cell phone, with variations of the named victim’s age, race, and gender. Respondents gauged their level of support for the proposed law and then for various individual punishments for violating the law.

            Socia found that naming a law after a victim increased support for the law. But this effect was not consistent across all named laws; instead, it was mainly driven by laws named after African American women, girls, and boys. Compared to an unnamed law, a law named after a victim was also more likely to elicit a higher level of authorized punishment, and this was also driven by laws named after African American women, as well as white men and boys.

Socia explains the study’s findings by referring to national events in August 2020, including widespread Black Lives Matters protests across the United States and a related push to pass Breonna’s Law (named for Breonna Taylor, an African American woman fatally shot in Louisville, Kentucky, when police forced entry into her apartment). Both may have influenced views regarding African American victims.

Among the study’s limitations, the author notes, is that vignettes represent an artificial reality and study participants may have responded differently to real-world proposals. Also, the study considered a relatively common form of deviance rather than the rare heinous and violent crimes that are usually the subjects of victim naming practices, so conclusions may not generalize to proposals targeting more serious crimes.

“The study’s findings suggest that the image of the ‘ideal victim’ may have shifted or expanded to place greater emphasis on African American women and less emphasis on White women,” says Socia. “This means there may be a policy window for proposing laws named after female victims of color, but whether that is a good thing or not depends on the details of the proposed law and its consequences for society.

“The findings also suggest that unnamed legislation that initially fails to pass can be successful after being renamed for a victim—at least for certain types of victims.”

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