Crime seriousness: a comparison of public attitude and court practice

Criminology Research Council grant ; (32/89)

Public debates about the proper function of sentencing have as much to do with belief and preference as they have with empirical evidence as to the effects of a sentence. The trend in the United States, for example, has been toward proportionality in sentencing. In New South Wales 'Truth in Sentencing' legislation has recently been introduced. The present study raises points relevant to the debate on sentencing policy. These are matters which, in application, finally rest with the Government and the judiciary. There are numbers of indications that both these institutions are open to such a debate and the kind of information contained in the present report. It is hoped that the report, which represents a psychological analysis of attitudes toward crime, will be useful to the debate.

The psychological perspective on sentencing contrasts with the legal approach. The assumptions, interests and methodology of psychological analysis are alien to legal scholars. It is hoped this contrast will be beneficial to those seeking a different perspective on sentencing. This study is restricted to an examination of public attitudes in relation to sentencing, however, it is important to recognise that there has been a large amount of highly refined and comprehensive work completed recently on sentencing both overseas and in Australia.

The present study was designed to test the relationship between public perceptions of crime seriousness and indications of crime seriousness based on court practice. Court practice indications of crime seriousness are based on the proportions of convicted offenders imprisoned and the terms of imprisonment imposed for the crimes studied.

Ancillary aims of the study concern:

  • an analysis of community views in regard to factors relevant to sentencing (the purpose of sentencing, factors to be considered by the sentencer, etc.);
  • a comparison of community views on crime seriousness and other matters related to sentencing with the views of a small sample (15) of higher court judges; and
  • an analysis of rates of victimisation, perceptions of the likelihood of victimisation and fear of crime.

The achievement of the main aim of the study (comparison of public perceptions with court practice) requires two separate and distinct measurement tasks: measurement of public attitudes and court practice; and then a test of relationship between these two measures.

The study provides a comparison of court practice and public attitudes in terms of the judged seriousness of a selected range of crimes and was based in Perth, Western Australia. As an adjunct to the main study a small sample (15) of Supreme and District Court judges and two other sentencers were interviewed with the same measurement instrument used to gauge public attitude. The study included analyses of fear of crime, victimisation, views of the media, and various other issues related to criminal justice policy.

The results of this study indicate that there is general agreement between the community, judges and the courts regarding the relative seriousness of the six crimes studied. However, the results indicate differences between the courts, the judges and the public in the quantum of the penalty considered appropriate for most crimes. The public sample suggested, for almost every offence studied, longer periods of imprisonment and greater proportions of offenders to be imprisoned. The public sample also expressed less acceptance of 'time off' prison sentences through remission and parole.

The results of the study point to some areas of agreement and divergence between community attitudes and judicial views. The community and the judiciary tend to agree that judgments of seriousness should be based on the 'harm done' and the seriousness of the offence and the harm done to the victim are the two most important factors that judges should consider when sentencing offenders.

The main points of disagreement are typical of previous work in this area. First, and mainly, the public seem to want the penalty of imprisonment used more than it is by the judges or the court particularly with rape. Second, the offence of armed robbery stands out as the one offence judged as deserving of more punishment by the courts and the judiciary than the public. This has been explained in terms of different understandings of 'harm done'.

The results suggest that the general public is less convinced of the relevance of rehabilitation as a purpose of sentencing than the judges surveyed. The results also demonstrate how questions regarding the overall functions of sentencing if asked in a general way can actually mask functions which are specific to the type of offender and offence. 'Incapacitation' and 'retribution' together account for most (60 per cent) of the community responses to a question regarding the purposes of sentencing offenders convicted of serious violent crimes. In contrast 'individual deterrence' and 'rehabilitation' account for most (73 per cent) of responses offered when considering the sentencing of young offenders convicted of property offences.