A country not divided: A comparison of public punitiveness and confidence in sentencing across Australia

Published date01 December 2011
DOI10.1177/0004865811419059
Date01 December 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Australian & New Zealand
Journal of Criminology
44(3) 370–386
!The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/0004865811419059
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Article
A country not divided:
A comparison of public
punitiveness and confidence in
sentencing across Australia
Lynne D Roberts
Curtin University, Australia
Caroline Spiranovic
University of Western Australia, Australia
David Indermaur
University of Western Australia, Australia
Abstract
Changes to sentencing legislation are often introduced or justified on the basis of satisfying
public opinion. If sentencing policy is a reflection of public opinion we should see a concordance
between different sentencing policies and public opinion. This paper provides a comparison
between Australian States and Territories in terms of two key measures of public attitude
concerning sentencing: confidence in sentencing and punitiveness. These results are based on
a comprehensive telephone survey (N¼6005) of Australian adults which utilized a stratified
random sample of households from the Electronic White Pages. It was found that there were
only minor differences in the key measures of public attitude despite the notable differences
between the States and Territories of Australia with respect to sentencing policy.Differences in
public attitudes across jurisdictions were small, accounting for less than 2 per cent of variation
in confidence in sentencing and punitive attitudes scores. In addition, despite the predicted
moderately negative association between confidence in sentencing and punitiveness, neither of
these variables was related in any systematic way to jurisdictional differences in imprisonment
rates. The major implication of these findings is that the wide differences in sentencing practice
and policy between jurisdictions in Australia are not linked to differences in public attitudes,
supporting Beckett’s (1997) argument that sentencing policy is better understood as a function
of political initiative rather than a direct articulation of public attitude.
Keywords
public attitudes, public opinion, punitiveness, sentencing, survey
Corresponding author:
Lynne D Roberts (PhD), Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Curtin Health Innovation
Research Institute, Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA6845 Australia.
Email: Lynne.Roberts@curtin.edu.au
Sentencing legislation is often introduced on the basis of assumptions about public
attitudes (Roberts, 2008; Warner et al., 2009). However, there is usually very little
systematic testing or understanding of these attitudes. What is taken as the public attitude
by key decision makers is usually what is gleaned from the nature and intensity of media
focus. If public attitude is accurately ref‌lected in sentencing legislation and policy then
we should be able to observe dif‌ferences in public attitude in dif‌ferent jurisdictions within
Australia in line with the dif‌ferences in penal policy. If these dif‌ferences are not evident it
may provide support for Beckett’s (1997) view that dif‌ferences in penal policy are largely a
function of political initiative rather than the direct articulation of public preferences,
as suggested by the ‘democracy at work’ perspective. In this article we present the results
of a major national public attitudes survey which provides the opportunity for an
examination of Australian inter-jurisdictional dif‌ferences in relation to punitiveness and
public conf‌idence in sentencing.
Whilst a small proportion of the Australian community (estimated at one in 20;
Roberts and Indermaur, 2009) engage directly with the criminal court system as defen-
dants, victims, witnesses or jurors in any one year, the vast majority of the public form
their opinions based on information presented in the media. Eight out of 10 Australians
rate each of TV, radio and newspapers as ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ important sources in informing
their views about crime (Roberts and Indermaur, 2009). The resultant widespread lack
of knowledge about crime and the operation of the criminal justice system, including
incorrect perceptions of sentencing practices, has been well documented (e.g. Doob and
Roberts, 1988; Haines and Case, 2007; Hough and Roberts, 1998, 1999, 2004; Mattinson
and Mirrlees-Black, 2000; Roberts and Stalans, 1997; Roberts et al., 2003; Sprott, 1996)
dating back to the KOL (knowledge and opinion of law) studies in the early 1970s
(Podgorecki et al., 1973). Australian studies (Indermaur, 1987; Indermaur and Roberts,
2005; Roberts and Indermaur, 2009; Weatherburn and Indermaur, 2004) have mapped
the dimensions of the public lack of knowledge. The gaps in knowledge range from
expectations about crime rates to understandings of the proportion of convicted of‌fenders
that is imprisoned. The public lack of knowledge could be summarized as ref‌lecting a
widespread belief that crime rates are increasing and the courts are too lenient.
Given the widespread lack of public knowledge, we must remain circumspect about
public opinion in this area as we can reliably assume it is based on a faulty information
base. Furthermore, the frequent reporting of public opinion as being dissatisf‌ied may
actually play a role in reinforcing public expressions of dissatisfaction through a process
referred to as the ‘third person ef‌fect’ (Mutz, 1989) in which an individual may shape their
attitudes so as to conform to what is perceived to be the majority view.
Despite this shaky grounding for public opinion on sentencing, public opinion can be
inf‌luential in the sentencing process. As Roberts (2008) pointed out, while public opinion
is usually not a legally recognized factor for consideration during the determination of
sentencing, legislation is often introduced and justif‌ied by reference to public opinion.
It also appears that judges make assessments of public opinion. Comments such as
‘community expectation’ and ‘community sentiments’ routinely appear in sentencing
remarks. The expectation is that sentencing will be somewhat congruent with public
expectations. Consistent with this, there is evidence that the judiciary do integrate their
perceptions of public opinion into their considerations at the time of sentencing
(Indermaur, 1990; Martin, 2009).
Roberts et al. 371

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