Public attitudes to various types of criminal behaviour

Criminology Research Council grant ; (4/77)

The researchers conducting this project developed a technique for assessing the seriousness of offences using a questionnaire which asked respondents to indicate their views of a series of anecdotes which portrayed various types of criminal behaviour. The questionnaire was submitted to relatively large samples of the population and was found to produce more reliable estimates of seriousness than other techniques. The results of this research have been presented to many conferences and seminars and have also provided the basis for three articles in scholarly journals. The citation details of these articles are:

  • How Serious is the Offence of Drunken Driving?, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 1978, 11: 141-147;
  • Make the Punishment Fit the Crime, Australian Quarterly, 1979,51(3): 55-61;
  • The Severity of Drunken Driving as Perceived by Drunken Drivers, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 1980, 12: 105-111.

In these studies the researchers examined the way in which three different populations of respondents judge the severity of a drunken driving offence in which no personal injury was caused and where property damage was relatively small (i.e. below $250). Except for lawyers, who tended to pay more attention to property offences, most raters awarded relatively harsh penalties to the drunken driver. In one study in which the judgments of men convicted of drunken driving offences were contrasted with judgments from a control group which consisted of men who had no previous conviction for drunken driving, it was found that respondents who had a conviction for drunken driving rated this offence as significantly less severe than those who had no such previous conviction. It appears that men convicted of a drunken driving charge considered this offence to be less serious than men not so convicted.

The results of the investigation did not show whether this change in attitude was taken by offenders so as to minimize their feelings of guilt, or whether it was due to the offenders' belief that the offence of drunken driving was not considered to be serious.