Analysis of patterns in public perception of crime

Criminology Research Council grant ; (2/87)

This project involved statistical analysis of a large data set on Australian public opinion regarding a selection of 13 criminal offences. When each offence was assessed for its 'seriousness' using the Sellin-Wolfgang index, the ordering offences from most to least serious were: stabbing a victim to death, heroin trafficking, pollution causing one death, industrial accident causing loss of a leg, armed bank robbery, wife beating, child beating, social security fraud, Medicare fraud, break and enter, tax evasion, shoplifting and homosexuality.

This ordering is significantly different from the comparable ordering given by the public in the United States. The Australian public gives higher seriousness scores to crimes occasioning (or with potential for) serious physical harm, and significantly lower scores than the U.S. sample for white collar crimes, shoplifting and homosexuality.

Major differences of opinion were also apparent within the Australian sample - especially regarding the choice of appropriate sentence for particular crimes. For example, opinion on sentencing for a social security fraud involving $1,000 was fairly evenly divided between imposing a fine, a community service order, imprisonment and probation. Differences in opinion were strongly related to the respondent's age and education level; respondents with tertiary education tend to rely less on the death penalty, life imprisonment or a fixed prison term as a means of sentencing, and instead lean more towards probation and community service than respondents without tertiary education; the relationship with age, on the other hand, is for perceived seriousness of most crimes to increase with the age of the respondent.