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Public Attitudes Toward the Criminal Justice System in Five Countries: Canada, United States, Holland, Australia, and Great Britain
In this issue, instead of profiling an international agency as we have done in the past, we have
chosen to report on studies pertaining to public attitude in five different countries. We were initially
interested in looking at public attitudes from an international perspective, hoping that we might be
able to compare the studies. Finding the task onerous, owing to the various methodological approaches
used by the researchers, we decided to summarize interesting research on public attitudes in different
countries and to highlight the major findings without attempting a detailed comparative analysis.
For Australia, we picked an article by Walker, Collins and Wilson written for a book entitled Public Attitudes to Sentencing. The comprehensive study by Brillon, Guerin and Larmarche, 'Attitudes of the Canadian Public Toward Crime Policies", was the Canadian research that we chose to profile. The England and Wales summary was based on a social issues survey conducted in 1986 by Walker, Hough and Lewis. The 1975 Dutch national survey on attitudes toward crime and crime control and the national victim surveys of 1982 and 1985 were selected for our discussion of Holland. A survey conducted in Maryland in 1980 by Gottfredson, Warner and Taylor serves as an example of research from the United States. All the sources were assembled in a recent book, Public Attitudes to Sentencing: Surveys from Five Countries, published in 1988 and edited by Nigel Walker and Mike Hough. CANADA A recent study by Yves Brillon and his colleagues at the Université de Montreal looked at general public attitudes of Canadians toward crime. The sample that the researchers studied was made up of a highly urbanized population from Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg (N = 614) and a rural population from the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba (N = 203), with a total sample size of 817 subjects.
In one set of questions, the respondents were asked to select what they considered to be the most important objective of sentencing. Thirty-one percent felt that the most important aim was to discourage people from committing crimes, 25% considered it to be protecting citizens against crime, and 19% saw punishment more as measure of expiation imposed on the criminal. A smaller sample (14.7%) considered the most important objective to be reintegration, 7% compensation for the harm done to victims and only 2% felt that sentencing enables society to take revenge on people who commit crimes.
A notable aspect of the research was that respondents were asked to specify the type of criminal they had in mind when giving their opinion on the severity of the sentences. Thirty-two percent answered that they thought of various forms of murder, 9.7% of rape and 22.1% of what they considered to be other forms of serious criminality, such as premeditated acts, sadistics acts, or theft with violence.
When queried about life sentences, 38% of the respondents answered (16.8% strongly and 21.1 % somewhat) that it is inhuman to keep somebody incarcerated for 25 years. On the other hand, 58% of respondents (30.3% some-what and 27.6% strongly) disagreed with this point of view, suggesting their tendency to consider prison as performing the double function of deterrence and the protection of society.
It is interesting to note that 72.1% of the sample were somewhat (35.5%) or strongly (36.6%) against improving the living conditions of prisoners. This finding is not surprising when we consider that approximately half of the respondents thought that correctional institutions are luxurious. Furthermore, 85% noted that the sentences pronounced by judges are not severe enough. The research concluded that there appears to be a relationship between punitiveness and the respondent's perception that the quality of the living conditions in prison is quite high. The authors consider that this also indicates that the public wants sentences and the prison environment both to be punitive and to act as a deterrent.
Most Canadians seem to determine the dangerousness of an offence by its type rather than the personality of the offender. For example, for an occasional petty theft, 5.4% of the respondents would have liked the offender to be sentenced to a prison term, 52.9% to a probation period and 40.6% considered a fine to be an appropriate penalty. Should an individual be a multirecidivist in committing petty thefts, the number of respondents who favoured prison increased to 19.5%, 47.1% preferred probation as a sanction and 32.2% preferred a fine. For an armed robbery, even if committed by a first-time offender, a greater number of respondents (74.6%) suggested that the judges should resort to imprisonment, 16.4% would accept probation and only 6.4% would consider fining the armed robber.
After the type of offence, premeditation was considered to be the most important factor in assessing the level of dangerousness (identified by 27.1% of the sample). Next in order of importance, 23.6% felt that the circumstances surrounding the perpetration of the crime is the most important criterion, 20.4% believed it to be the offender's motivation to commit the offence, 16% said that recidivism is the primary factor, 8.8% considered the personality and social standing of the offender, and 2.6% felt that the age and gender of the victim are the most important elements.
Socio-demographic analysis revealed that more punitive attitudes were associated with respondents who earned $35,000 or more, who were proprietors, English-speaking, over 62 years of age, had less education and were rural residents.
In summary, the survey results illustrated that the public considers a variety of factors in their perceptions of the appropriateness of sanctions. Some offenders should be removed from society and some can be tolerated. Since most people had dangerous criminals in mind when they answered most questions, the authors conclude that the data gathered by the survey, as with many other public surveys, overestimates the punitiveness of the population. UNITED STATES A major survey was conducted recently by Stephen G. Gottfredson and Ralph B. Taylor of Temple University and Barbara D. Warner of the State University of New York to evaluate the perceived seriousness of different offences across various groups of individuals in the State of Maryland. Respondents included a group of 112 undergraduate students, 74 state troopers, 120 guards from Maryland correctional institutions, 87 parole and probation officers from several jurisdictions, 23 members of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and 41 defence and prosecuting attorneys. Seventy-four felons confined in Maryland correctional institutions also voluntarily participated in the study.
Large differences in the perceived seriousness of different offences were manifested across the groups. For example, inmates perceived property crimes, major drug offences, and offences involving personal injury to be much less serious than did other groups. Interestingly, the student sample appeared to perceive all types of offences as being much more serious than did any other group. The authors explain the finding by suggesting that individuals having some [involvement with the criminal justice system deem offences to be less serious than do persons not having criminal justice involvement.
In a separate set of studies, e authors examined issues of consensus between those who set correctional policy and those affected by policies. In 1980, an interview schedule containing both structured and open-ended items was administered to 88 Maryland correctional policy makers. The sample was chosen to comprise major officials within the criminal justice system, including correctional administrators, planners, and other officials representing the state (N = 16); correctional administrators, planners and other officials representing local jurisdictions (N = 13); local elected officials (N = 14); supervision officials (wardens, superintendents, N = 15); law enforcement officials (N = 1); and representatives of the legal system (N = 11).
The interview covered issues related to the problems and assets of Maryland's correctional system; perceptions of the level of crisis in corrections and the reasons underlying it; short- and long-term solutions to prison crowding problems; attitudes toward proposed policy changes; assessment of the attitudes of others concerning proposed policy changes; and goals and philosophies for corrections.
In December 1980, a public-attitude survey, which included just over 600 interviews, was conducted in 13 of 24 counties in Maryland. The same basic information on attitudes toward correctional goals and proposed policy changes was collected, but using a simpler format.
A considerable discrepancy was noted between public opinion of four major correctional goals and policy makers' perceptions of public opinion with respect to these same identified goals. While the policy makers felt that the public prefers the goal of incapacitation, this goal is in fact the second lowest priority in the view of the public. While policy makers felt that the public supports retributive punishment, this goal is actually assigned the lowest priority by the public sample.
Policy makers and the general public agree that simple retributive punishment is the least desirable goal for a correctional system, and both assign high priority to the goal of treatment and rehabilitation. Disagreement exists over the goals of incapacitation and deterrence. Further analysis of the policy makers' perceptions of public sentiment on certain key correctional issues revealed that policy makers generally misperceive public opinion. Of interest, while the opinions of the policy makers and the public were quite similar, policy makers overestimated by half the public will to abolish parole.
Respondents in the survey of the general public reported that the Maryland corrections system was doing poorly at meeting any of its proper goals. When asked about Maryland's attempts to implement these four goals, less than half the respondents felt that Maryland was doing a good job at implementation. Further, a very large proportion of the respondents (ranging from 79% for the goal of incapacitation to 70% for the goal of rehabilitation) reported that more should be done to meet these correctional goals.
It has often been assumed that the general public is not only uninterested in correctional issues, but ignorant of these issues as well. The authors concluded from their survey that this is not the case, at least not in Maryland. They found that the majority of the sample were interested in corrections issues, that they were quite aware of the major problems facing the state corrections system, and that they followed the issues quite regularly. Finally, it was clear that the public held strong opinions concerning the proper goals of the correctional system. Contrary to general belief, they found that the general public were not especially punitive - rather, they stress more utilitarian goals, such as rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation. HOLLAND In 1975 the Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands conducted a national survey on attitudes toward crime and crime control. Essential parts of this study were replicated as an annex to the Dutch national victim survey of 1982 and as a separate survey in 1985.
In each of the surveys, respondents were asked to evaluate three repressive methods of crime control (incarceration, heavier punishment and work camps) and three preventive methods (reform, social assistance and job programs for ex-convicts). Those who supported either type of method tended to be skeptical about the other. Positive opinions about repressive and preventive policies, however, are far from mutually exclusive. For instance, half of the respondents who were in favour of repressive measures were equally supportive of preventive measures. The data suggested that support for repressive options was somewhat greater in the more densely populated areas in Holland. Perhaps those who had been victims of crime expressed a preference for preventive measures. Further analysis showed that the well-educated and younger segments of the population tended to favour repression less than others.
Support for repressive approaches to crime control did not increase at all over the ten-year period that was examined. Support for rehabilitative approaches declined, but a majority of the population still supported such measures.
The main objective of the 1985 Dutch national survey was to assess attitudes toward sentencing. Respondents were invited to suggest a sentence for seven typical cases to permit comparisons with the actual sentences for the same type of offences pronounced by courts in the Netherlands in 1983. Of the 17,000 respondents, 14% proposed an unconditional prison sentence of up to one year for bicycle theft, when the courts had sentenced 23% of the bicycle thieves to a sentence of up to four months. Sixty-five percent of the respondents proposed a prison term ranging between three months and five years for rape, while the courts imposed imprisonment for 71% of their rape cases, but for shorter terms of one to 18 months. Seventy-eight percent requested sentences between one and five years for attempted homicide. For the same type of offence, the courts sentenced 85% of their cases to prison for a maximum of 4.5 years.
In 1982, a victim survey of 10,000 respondents asked a series of questions regarding government expenditure on crime control. The same questions were asked in the 1985 Dutch national survey. In 1982, 54% of the sample said that they would welcome an increase in expenditure for crime control, while in 1985 the figure had increased to 77%, of which 32% said that they would even be prepared to pay more taxes for this purpose.
According to the authors, there appears to be continued sup-port for a Dutch criminal policy that emphasizes both preventive and repressive measures. Those who feel threatened by crime favour extra government spending on crime control, regardless of their criminological position. AUSTRALIA The Australian Institute of Criminology commissioned a survey in 1986 in which a randomly selected cross-section of 2,551 members of the public were asked to determine an appropriate sentence for each of 13 types of offences. Respondents were shown a card listing the available forms of punishment, including the death penalty, no penalty, and a warning, and were asked to specify which one they felt was most appropriate to the offence under consideration. In addition, they were asked to rank the offences according to severity.
The average response showed broad agreement with typical court decisions, including a tendency to punish violent offenders with prison sentences and to punish property offenders with non-custodial penalties, particularly fines. There were significant areas where public opinion appeared to be at odds with court practice, J sometimes being more punitive, sometimes less. For example, the public chose prison sanctions in most cases of wife battering, while the courts generally sentenced the offender to probation. On the other hand, the public was slightly less punitive than the courts for medicare fraud.
Life imprisonment was seen by 53% of the sample as appropriate for persons convicted of murder and 36% felt that it was an appropriate sentence for those convicted of heroin trafficking. Significantly, only one in four respondents called for the death penalty for murder and one in six for the drug offender. The courts also favoured life imprisonment for murder, and it is not unknown for such a sentence to be imposed on major drug traffickers.
Although a $1,000 social security offence is regarded in law as more serious than a $5,000 medical or tax fraud, the public seems to be more lenient toward the social security offender. Almost two fifths of the sample would give a person who commits a social security fraud a non-custodial sentence, about the same proportion would hand down a fine, and over one fifth would allocate a community service order to the offender. In contrast, over half the sample would impose a fine on other fraud offenders. Social security offenders would receive higher fines than individuals who had committed tax fraud.
In the case of a $5 shoplifting offence, 51 % of the respondents were in favour of a police warning, with a wide range of other options supported by respondents.
Further analyses were conducted to determine which social and demographic variables were relevant to the determination of the respondents' various choice of sentences. The major findings were as follows.
Except for shoplifting, (breaking and entering and armed robbery offences, the trend was for individuals with higher education to advocate much more lenient sentences than those with less formal education.
Males were more in favour of the death penalty than females, for heroin trafficking offences (M = 20%, F = 14%) and murder. Males were also more punitive than females for the offences of burglary and male homosexuality. On the other hand, females were slightly more punitive than males for the offences of factory pollution (28% of the women and 24% of the men felt that such an offence warrants a prison term), child beating and employer negligence (for which imprisonment was advocated by 23% of the women and 18% of the men). The authors were surprised to find that males and females gave similar sentences for individuals convicted of spousal assault.
Respondents over 60 years of age (21 %) were more likely than the respondents of 20 years and under (11 %) to advocate the death penalty for heroin trafficking, and the older segment of the population was also more punitive than those under 20 with respect to social security fraud, wife beating, homosexuality and fraudulent offences.
The authors reported being surprised to have found that the diversity of the opinions regarding sentencing indicated a high level of sophistication in public attitudes about crime and punishment. The findings generally revealed that a significant number of Australians are willing to suggest non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment: fines, probation and community service orders. ENGLAND AND WALES How punitive is the English public? Feelings toward punishment as a form of retribution remained the same in two Gallup polls conducted in 1982 and 1986; support for rehabilitation decreased slightly, from 16% to 14%, while about the same proportion of the population (41% versus 38%) continued to believe in punishment as a deterrent. The responses could be expected to vary with the amount of information provided about the type and seriousness of the offence and the offender.
A survey tapping views about a number of social issues, designed by Nigel Walker of the University of Cambridge and Mike Hough and Helen Lewis of the Home Office Research and Planning Unit, was conducted in 1986 in 81 constituencies of England and Wales. The sample size was 1,249 adults drawn from the Electoral Registers, with approximately 21 names selected for each constituency. By an unforeseeable mischance, the fieldwork coincided with an unusual amount of media attention to sexual crimes. Two days before field work began, guidelines for tougher sentencing of rapists, issued by the Lord Chief Justice, generated considerable publicity. Furthermore, while the interviews were in progress, several sexual attacks were publicized.
Respondents were asked if they could remember any court cases about crimes they had read or heard prior to the survey. Those who said they could were asked about the details of the case, specifically the sentence. Slightly more than half (54%) could recall a recent case. The percentage was larger (61%) among those who had said that they discussed sentencing very or fairly often and lower (45%) among those who discussed it less often. Of those who could recall a recent case, only three quarters could recall its outcome. The researchers were surprised to find that the level of crime (31%) and the sentencing of criminals (26%) were the most frequently discussed topics among friends and family.
The respondents were also questioned about the main aims of the courts when sentencing someone for a crime like burglary or robbery. They were given the choice between deterrence, general or individual retribution, reparation and expression of public disapproval. Forty-four percent of the respondents felt that offenders should be sentenced to what they deserve, 33% felt that sentencing should act as a deterrent, and 6% felt that the main function of sentencing is to make the victim feel happier.
In questioning about the alternative sanctions for different types of offences, respondents were given five choices, varying from "too soft" to "too tough" and "don't know". For the two crimes of violence, rape and mugging, 90% and 87% respectively thought the courts were too soft. In the case of burglary, 54% of the respondents thought the courts were too soft and in the case of shoplifting 17% thought that the courts were too soft and 15% felt they were too tough.
The respondents were questioned on specific sentences for particular offences. They were given six stories, which for most were presented in the form of a faked newspaper clipping. Each of the stories was presented with a sentence, which was by court standards very severe, mildly severe or lenient. Interestingly, the 1,215 respondents found 203 ways of ranking seven penalties. According to the authors, this was because of the respondents' differing evaluations of suspended sentences, probation and community service. The analysis also showed that while probation and the other non-custodial sentences used in the stories were generally perceived as more lenient than imprisonment in the eyes of sentencers and most respondents, not all regarded probation as more lenient than fines or community service.
These findings support the belief that the English public generally supports sentences for common crimes. Conclusion Contrary to popular belief among professionals in corrections, not only is the public knowledgeable about the criminal justice system, but there is also a high degree of openness about the issues that dominate this realm of human experience. Our profiles of studies from five countries suggest that People everywhere wish to contribute to the evolution of community and institutional corrections. This news will be welcomed by correctional officials who are concerned with public education. One of the most salient notions that emerges from the international overview of research in this area is that the public is less punitive than expected and generally optimistic about offender rehabilitation. With regard to sentencing, the research uncovers a wide range of views and highlights the complexity of the public's role in the development of the various aspects of the criminal justice process. Perhaps most startling were the research findings demonstrating very clearly that correctional policy makers underestimate the progressive views current among the public.