There has been an unfortunate lack of empirical research on the ways in which public opinion is constructed, assessed, and used by political actors in the course of their work on penal issues. Using a constructionist perspective on public opinion and an enterprise perspective on policymaking, this research included sixty-one semi-structured interviews conducted in the fall of 2006 with a variety of political actors in New York State: legislators, legislative staffers, communications staffers, state agency staffers, advocates, and journalists. The interviews were designed to encourage political actors to reflect on and describe the ways in which they think about, assess, and use public opinion in the course of their work on penal issues.
The findings from this study indicate that political actors believe the public to be poorly informed and punitive on penal issues. Political actors report that their sense of public opinion is based on hunches or intuition developed from personal and professional experiences and that they also depend for indications of public opinion on a variety of other sources: news media coverage, the behaviors of other political actors, communication with advocates and crime victims, talking with "average" people or sources within the community, looking at political trends in other states, and, to a much more limited degree, the results of polls and testimony at public hearings.
In interviews for this research, many political actors explained that they are frustrated with what they see as increasingly reactive and irrational policymaking. In the ideal, political actors argue, news media would do a better job of educating the public on penal issues, and an informed public would play a major role in policymaking. In reality, political actors argue, public opinion, most often in the form of "publicity" or media coverage drives policymaking on high-profile penal issues and has little impact on low-profile or technical penal issues.
The findings from this dissertation suggest that to develop a comprehensive and grounded understanding of public opinion and penal policymaking, it will be necessary to attend to the fluid dynamics through which political actors construct and relate to public opinion.