Public perception of sentencing in Perth

Criminology Research Council grant ; (7/86)

The general view of public attitude toward the punishment of offenders is that is is punitive and opposed to alternatives to imprisonment. Earlier authors have argued that public policy makers have largely accepted the view of a punitive public and are hesitant to introduce reform for fear of political consequences. Some earlier studies have questioned the conclusion that the public is generally punitive and opposed to alternatives to imprisonment.

The present study critically reviews the issue of public attitude towards the punishment of offenders. Specifically, the utility of general survey questions was examined. It is suggested that 'general' questions about 'general' crime may simply tap respondents' anxiety about violence. The results of the present study support earlier work which indicates that the public is concerned about violent crime and this concern dominates its responses. When more specific questions were asked, and more detail was given, respondents gave more specific, and less punitive, responses.

A total of 554 Perth residents were interviewed from a sample frame of 800. Firstly, perception of crime was probed. Most respondents overestimated the amount of crime which involves violence and tended to see the murder rate as increasing when it is not. Most (76 per cent) said that sentences 'are not severe enough'. However, 80 per cent of these were thinking of a violent criminal when answering that question.

The second part of the interview involved a split sample design to test differences in responses to two types of item presentation. Approximately half the sample (288) were simply asked to nominate a penalty considered appropriate for three offences. The other half were given brief descriptions of the offence and the offender and then asked to nominate the appropriate penalty. To overcome the confounding effect of possible mitigating factors, respondents were asked to specify average, maximum and minimum penalties, and then onlv the nominated minimum penalties were compared. The minimum sentences were significantly lower for the group given the case descriptions. The results suggest that public responses to questions of punishment are largely influenced by stereotypes.

A good deal of acceptance was found for proposed alternatives to imprisonment. The most popular (75 per cent said yes, in all or most cases) was the use of attendance centres for those sentenced to less than three months in prison (this group makes up 60 per cent of all prisoners received in Western Australia). Most respondents also favoured programs for fine defaulters, on the spot fines for petty offences and a day fine Respondents who expressed greater fear of crime were more likely to overestimate the amount of crime which is violent and to favour harsher sentences. Respondents' estimation of their risk of victimisation largely exceeded the risks suggested by victimisation survey data. Women tended to be more afraid and to be more likely to overestimate the amount of violent crime.

The implications of the results are discussed in terms of survey methodology and sentencing reform. It is argued that surveys need to be more specific and precise in posing questions. More importantly, caution needs to be exercised in interpreting poll results, especially when they are used to guide policy formulation and judicial practice. Public concern is largely in the area of violent crime. However, in Western Australia crimes of violence account for only about 4 per cent of all reported crime and 13 per cent of all prisoners received. Extrapolations of public reactions on general questions about crime to specific proposals in the criminal justice system are likely to be invalid.

Details of this study were published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology:   Indermaur, D. (1987). Public perception of sentencing in Perth, Western Australia. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 20(3), 163–183.