Public Opinion about Sentencing Research Paper

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Confidence in the courts is critical to the legitimacy and effective functioning of the criminal justice system. However, surveys measuring levels of public confidence in the system have found that public trust and confidence are at critically low levels around the world. This is especially so for the courts and sentencing.

Low levels of confidence in the courts have been of major concern for governments around the world. Within this context, a substantial body of literature has developed that attempts to understand the drivers of public confidence. There are five main themes to this body of research:

  • People have little confidence in the courts.
  • In the abstract, people believe that sentences are too lenient.
  • People have little accurate knowledge of crime and the criminal justice system.
  • The mass media is the primary source of information on crime and justice issues.
  • When given more information, people become less punitive.

While there is widespread agreement in the literature that people’s knowledge of crime and justice is a primary driver of their attitudes to the courts and sentencing, there is less agreement about the practical implications of this finding in terms of improving public confidence. That is, if lack of knowledge about crime and justice is closely related to lack of confidence in the courts, can public confidence be improved by increasing public understanding?

Some researchers believe that the answer to improving public confidence lies in informing and educating the public, often via bodies such as sentencing councils. Others, however, see this approach as doomed to fail in the absence of more widespread opportunities for public deliberation, debate and discussion. While informing and educating is aimed squarely at the intellectual aspect of public attitudes, it is often more emotive factors that drive attitudes. Ignoring the affective to focus on the effective thus only addresses part of the story of the relationship among attitudes, knowledge and confidence in the courts.


Confidence in the courts is critical to the legitimacy and effective functioning of the criminal justice system. All government institutions require some level of support from the community, but confidence in the courts is arguably one of the most important for society. The public is central to the legitimacy and function of the criminal justice system: without confidence, people may be less willing to report crimes or to participate in the system as jurors or witnesses.

Surveys measuring levels of public confidence in the criminal justice system have found that public trust and confidence are at critically low levels around the world (Roberts and Hough 2005). In particular, research comparing confidence across agencies within the criminal justice system has consistently found that people have high confidence in the police but low confidence in the courts and prisons (Hough and Roberts 2004). When asked why they have little confidence in the courts, people typically cite lenient sentencing.

Some researchers have described this as a crisis of confidence in the courts. While it is difficult to determine if any given level of public confidence is objectively acceptable, there is consensus among researchers and policymakers in many countries that this lack of public confidence is a cause for some concern. The potential implications of this crisis have led to varied attempts to promote public confidence in the system as a whole, but particularly in the courts.


Public opinion polls have become staple fare for governments wishing to measure community attitudes, and the area of criminal justice is no different. Along with the increased use of such polls since the 1970s has come a heightened sensitivity to the views of the public, as well as an increased role for public perceptions in the development of government policy. This is clearly seen in the rise of the public voice in criminal justice policy. That is, criminal justice systems administered by experts, independent of democratic pressures, have been replaced by systems that are more populist in style and punitive in substance. Public discourse on crime has become more emotive and emotional, with governments responding to public anxieties by seeking to give greater voice and effect to public demands.

To some extent, this more prominent public role reflects an element of penal populism: the development of penal policies that are based on their appeal to the public (and thus their ability to win votes) with little regard for their effectiveness in reducing crime or promoting justice (Roberts et al. 2003).

A penal populist approach is based upon the idea that the public is fed up with crime and with the perceived leniency of the criminal justice system. In an era of penal populism, where the vast majority of people learn about crime and the criminal justice system from the media, a combination of sensationalist reporting practices in the media and populist political responses to moral panics has resulted in widespread myths and misconceptions about sentencing in many Western countries.

Based on the perceived public concerns, penal populists take a firm “tough-on-crime” stance, using imprisonment as a central tool. Penal populism thus provides a framework within which to understand increasing imprisonment rates around the world as well as the proliferation of punitive sentencing policies such as three-strikes legislation, mandatory minimum sentences and sex offender notification laws.

Belief in a punitive public is driven primarily by the results of decades of opinion polls that show that the public believes the criminal justice system, and courts in particular, to be overly lenient. But while governments and the mass media continue to place high credence in the basic opinion poll question of whether sentencing is “too tough, about right, or too lenient” as a way to justify calls for punitive penal policy, academic researchers have repeatedly shown that public opinion on crime and justice issues, and on sentencing in particular, is far more nuanced and complex than such surveys show.

International Perspectives On Public Opinion

Regardless of the methodologies employed, research has consistently shown that public trust and confidence in the courts are especially low and are lower than public confidence in the police. While it may be unreasonable to expect levels of confidence in justice to match those of other institutions such as health care and education, especially given the different (and complex) mandate that the justice system has, the differential in levels of confidence has nonetheless been of major concern for governments around the world.

Within this context, a substantial body of literature has developed that attempts to understand the drivers of public confidence in the courts. There are five main themes to this body of research, each discussed in brief below.

People Have Little Confidence In The Courts

It is clear from the research literature that levels of confidence in the courts should not be expected to be high: one of the most consistent findings in this area is that ratings of satisfaction with, and confidence in, the courts are consistently lower than ratings for police and are objectively rather poor. The main reason for this low rating seems to be twofold: people believe that the courts are too lenient in sentencing offenders, and this perceived lenient sentencing is then held to blame for high rates of crime.

Studies that examine the correlates and causes of confidence in the courts have found few consistent results. One of the findings that does emerge consistently is that people who believe that crime is increasing are likely to be less confident in the courts. This has been linked in the literature with the role of the media in shaping people’s understanding of the nature and prevalence of crime.

In their analysis of data from the 1996 British Crime Survey, Hough and Roberts (1998) found that people who thought that sentences were too lenient were more likely to believe that judges were out of touch with society and were doing a poor job. Further analysis showed that people who believed that sentences were too lenient were also those who were particularly inaccurate in their perceptions of crime. The authors concluded that public dissatisfaction with the courts and sentencing is grounded, at least in part, by a lack of knowledge of both sentencing practice and trends in crime. Subsequent sweeps of the British Crime Survey have found identical results, consistently revealing a clear relationship between attitudes to sentencing and confidence in the courts.

More recent studies from other countries have found similar results. For example, in an analysis of survey responses of 1,200 randomly selected people in Victoria, Australia, Gelb (2011) found that the strongest single predictor of confidence in the courts and sentencing was people’s levels of punitiveness: the more punitive people were, the less confident they were in sentencing. As with the British Crime Survey data, perceptions of crime played a critical role, with lower confidence in the courts among people who believed that crime had been increasing. Perceptions of crime played both a direct role in predicting confidence, but also an indirect one, with perceptions of increasing crime leading to increased punitiveness, which in turn led to decreased confidence. People who relied on commercial or tabloid media were more likely to have perceived that crime had increased, demonstrating the link between confidence in the courts and the role of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of crime.

In The Abstract, People Believe Sentences Are Too Lenient

When representative surveys first came into widespread use, the most common way of measuring public opinion on sentencing was to use the general question of whether sentences are “too tough, about right, or too lenient.” This question, in some variant or another, has been used in opinion polls across the world for the last 40 years. And across a variety of Western countries, between 70% and 80 % of respondents have consistently reported that sentences are too lenient.

On the basis of these survey findings alone, politicians, policy-makers, and the media have concluded that the public is substantially punitive and will therefore support increasingly punitive penal policies. It is from this conclusion that penal populism has developed.

In more recent years, however, this conclusion has been called into question. In particular, researchers have suggested that the finding of a highly punitive public is a methodological artifact – a result of the way in which public opinion has been measured, rather than an accurate representation of what people really think.

Researchers have begun to differentiate between mass public opinion and informed public judgment – between top-of-the-head, immediate public opinion and the kind of reflective, informed public judgment that can develop once people have engaged with an issue, considered it from a number of perspectives, understood the choices that each perspective leads to, and accepted the consequences of those choices. Top-of-the-head responses to simple polling questions represent mass public opinion, as opposed to informed public judgment. While public opinion tends to be volatile and have little internal consistency with other views and beliefs held by the respondent, public judgment is characterized by firmness of opinion (changing little over time) and by the degree of consistency between this view and others held by the respondent.

In order to measure informed public judgment, since the 1980s researchers have gone beyond the single question opinion poll to include additional questions that can clarify and further explain the apparent harshness of public attitudes. In particular, researchers have given respondents more detailed case studies or vignettes to consider and have provided relevant contextual information (such as the cost of imprisonment or reoffending rates) to help respondents frame their answers. This approach aims to measure informed, thoughtful public judgment, rather than the top-of-the-head mass public opinion that is derived from the abstract “too tough-too lenient” question (Green 2006).

In this way the research has attempted to address the methodological limitations of using a single abstract question to measure complex and nuanced public attitudes.

People Have Little Accurate Knowledge Of Crime And The Criminal Justice System

Large-scale surveys of public opinion about crime and punishment in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all shown that the public has very little accurate knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system. Of particular relevance to attitudes about sentencing are findings that show that people have extensive misperceptions about the nature and extent of crime and about court outcomes.

Consistent results from many of the studies in this field show that people tend to:

  • Perceive crime to be constantly increasing, particularly crimes of violence, regardless of actual trends in crime
  • Overestimate the proportion of recorded crime that involves violence
  • Overestimate the percentage of offenders who re-offend
  • Underestimate the severity of sentencing practices (e.g., the incarceration rate)

Despite this lack of knowledge, people nonetheless have strongly held opinions about crime and justice issues. In fact, representative surveys have shown that it is those who have the lowest levels of knowledge who also hold the most punitive views. For example, Doob and Roberts (1983) found that those who think that sentences are too lenient are more likely to think that crime overall is violent and to underestimate the proportion of offenders convicted of robbery and assault who are sent to prison. Studies of this kind have provided strong evidence that dissatisfaction with perceived sentencing practice is due at least in part to public misperception and misinformation. But these misperceptions are neither random nor unrelated; they reflect a systematic and cohesive view of crime and criminal justice.

The combination of underestimates of the severity of sentencing and overestimates of the severity of offending builds a grossly inaccurate picture that has serious implications for levels of public confidence in the criminal justice system. People who have the least accurate perceptions of the nature and prevalence of crime are also those who are least likely to have a positive view of sentencers. Knowledge of crime is thus intimately linked to confidence in the courts and the criminal justice system in general. Such public misconceptions have led some researchers to conclude that the answer to low levels of public confidence lies in addressing the gaps in public knowledge of the criminal justice system.

The Mass Media Is The Primary Source Of Information On Crime And Justice Issues

Most people do not have direct access to firsthand information about the criminal justice system, either through personal experience or from the experience of family and friends. Instead, people tend to learn about crime and the criminal justice system through the mass media, in particular via newspapers. Given the ubiquity and popularity of the mass media (tabloid newspapers in particular), they play an integral role in the construction of both public opinion and the public “reality” of crime.

Different media provide significantly different views of the world. Broadsheet papers tend to focus on government, quoting experts, elites, and interest group representatives. Tabloid newspapers focus instead on crime victims and their families, offering dramatic and personal testimonials as counterpoint to the more professionalized discourse of the broadsheets.

Green (2006) suggests that complex public policy debates are represented by the media in increasingly constricted and emotive terms. Newspaper portrayals of crime stories do not provide a complete and accurate picture of the issue. Papers report selectively, choosing stories, and aspects of stories, with the aim of entertaining more than informing. Tabloid newspapers in particular tend to focus on unusual, dramatic and violent crime stories, in the process painting a picture of crime for the community that overestimates the prevalence of crime in general and of violent crime in particular. Analysis of British Crime Survey data has shown that tabloid readers tend to be more punitive and less knowledgeable about crime and justice than are broadsheet newspaper readers. In addition, the media provide little systematic information about the sentencing process or its underlying principles. Media emphasis on violent crime, a lack of coverage of statistical trends to place incidents in context and a focus on street crime and failures of the system all encourage a public perception that both the volume and seriousness of crime are getting worse. This perception, in turn, undermines confidence in the criminal justice system.

As people are overly influenced by single-case information, people falsely generalize that leniency characterizes the entire sentencing process. The media’s focus on violent crime leads to a perception that this type of event is typical, which affects both people’s knowledge of the facts about crime as well as their general levels of fear of crime. Both of these in turn have been shown to influence perceptions of leniency in sentencing.

But tabloid journalism alone cannot be responsible for the gap between the practices of the courts and the public’s perceptions of sentencing. In addition to media influence, people may be responding to messages about crime and social order (either implicit or explicit) that are conveyed in tandem by law-and-order political rhetoric and the news media. That is, it is the combination of reporting practices and populist political responses to moral panics that has resulted in widespread myths and misconceptions about crime and justice in general and about sentencing in particular.

Thus, public concerns about crime typically reflect crime as depicted in the media, rather than trends in the actual crime rate. This distorted view is then used to support one particular anticrime policy approach – an expanded and enhanced punitive criminal justice system.

When Given More Information, People Become Less Punitive

There is substantial evidence that the public’s lack of knowledge about crime and justice is related to the high levels of punitiveness reported as a response to a general, abstract question about sentencing. Based upon the conclusion that increasing the provision of information will decrease levels of punitiveness, many researchers have moved away from simplistic, abstract survey questions to those which provide much more information and detail to people before asking for a response. The crime vignette approach has been used in representative surveys to provide more information about the offence, the offender and the impact on the victim in order to elicit informed public judgment.

In their groundbreaking work, Doob and Roberts (1983) were the first who demonstrated the powerful effect of providing more information on respondents’ attitudes. Of respondents who received a brief description of a manslaughter case (akin to the type of information provided in media accounts), 80 % rated the sentence as too lenient, while only 7 % rated the sentence as about right. In comparison, of those who received a more detailed description with information on incident and offender characteristics, only 15 % rated the sentence as too lenient and 30 % said it was about right. Fully 45 % of this group described the sentence as too harsh. Doob and Roberts concluded that, were the public to form opinions from court-based information instead of through the lens of the mass media, there would be fewer calls for harsher sentences.

To extend this analysis, the authors then turned to comparisons of newspaper accounts with court records of sentencing hearings (such as transcripts) to determine if judgments about a case differed based on the different account given. Newspaper accounts led to perceptions that sentences were too lenient, but when given more complete information, people were more content with decisions made by trial judges.

These seminal studies show that sentences described in the media are perceived by most people as being too lenient, while those described in detail in court transcripts are mostly seen as appropriate. Doob and Roberts concluded that caution should be exercised in responding to calls for harsher penalties as a fully informed public could well be quite content with the current level of severity of penalties.

Diamond and Stalans (1989) adopted a similar approach in their comparison of lay and judicial responses to case study vignettes, in which respondents were asked to impose sentences on the same four moderately severe cases in which prison was a possible, but not inevitable sentencing outcome.

Respondents were presented with detailed information about each of the four cases, including information on the nature of the offence and on the offender’s background, as well as a video of the sentencing hearing. They were told the range of possible sentencing options legally available for that case and then completed a questionnaire indicating sentencing preferences.

There was no evidence in any of the four cases that judicial sentences were more lenient than the sentences of the lay respondents: judges’ sentences in the study were as severe or more severe than those of the lay respondents. Diamond and Stalans concluded that the perception that judges are more lenient than the public is simply a myth.

These findings have been replicated time and again in the decades since, with a large body of research showing that more detailed information is needed in order to measure informed public judgment rather than mass public opinion.

Key Issues In The Field

There is widespread agreement in the field, based on the large body of research that has now accumulated, that a lack of knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system is a significant factor in perpetuating public misperceptions and misunderstanding – that people’s knowledge of crime and justice is a primary driver of their attitudes to the courts and sentencing.

There is less agreement, however, about other factors that may underlie levels of confidence. Do demographic factors influence people’s attitudes? What about experience with the criminal justice system or previous victimization? How do other criminal justice attitudes relate to people’s confidence in the courts?

There is also debate about the practical implications of inaccurate knowledge about crime and justice in terms of improving public confidence. In other words, if lack of knowledge about crime and justice is closely related to lack of confidence in the courts, can public confidence be improved by increasing public understanding?

What Underlies Low Levels Of Confidence In The Courts?

Studies that examine the correlates and causes of confidence in the courts have found few consistent results. One of the findings that does emerge consistently is that people who believe that crime is increasing are likely to report that sentencing is too lenient and to be less confident in the courts. This has been linked in the literature with the role of the media in shaping people’s understanding of the nature and prevalence of crime. In particular, people who use commercial or tabloid media as their main source of information about crime and justice issues are more likely to have inaccurate knowledge of the nature and prevalence of crime and of the severity of sentencing outcomes. These same people are also more likely to hold punitive views toward offenders and to report lower levels of confidence in the courts.

The prominence of this constellation of factors – confidence in the courts and sentencing, punitiveness, and perceptions of crime – is found throughout the research literature, highlighting the interconnections among knowledge of crime, media use, confidence in sentencing and punitiveness.

Of the demographic factors examined in the research literature, the main consistent finding seems to be that younger people have higher levels of confidence in the courts than older people. This disparity has been found in studies from a variety of countries that measure confidence in different ways.

The role of other demographic factors is far less clear and has been the source of much study. In particular, factors such as gender, income and education have been included in many studies of the drivers of confidence in the courts but with inconsistent results.

For the most part, research on the demographic drivers of confidence has found no gender differences but has found that people with higher incomes and more education report greater confidence in the courts and indeed in other institutions as well. This finding, however, has not remained uncontested, with some studies finding no statistically significant relationship between these demographic factors and confidence, once factors such as knowledge of crime or fear of crime have been considered. The uncertainty of the role of these demographic factors may thus be a methodological issue rather than a substantive one – it may well be that demographic factors have an indirect rather than a direct effect on confidence, acting via more proximal factors such as knowledge of crime. The use of statistically sophisticated methodologies and analyses is required to address this question definitively.

Another factor that has presented inconsistent results in the literature is experience with the courts and its effect on levels of confidence. While earlier research showed that contact with the courts was related to lower levels of confidence, more recent research has resulted in a more sophisticated understanding: the nature of the experience will determine levels of confidence. That is, a person who has been treated with respect and sensitivity – regardless of whether appearing as a witness or serving as a juror – will be more confident in the justice system. It is thus the nature of the contact, rather than the fact of the contact per se, that influences ratings of confidence.

This finding has also been expressed in terms of procedural fairness: people who perceive that their treatment by the court was fair (regardless of actual outcome) are more likely to express confidence in the courts.

How Can Public Confidence In The Courts And Sentencing Be Improved?

Given the consistent and strong relationship that has been demonstrated between lack of knowledge about crime and justice and lack of confidence in the courts and sentencing, an implicit assumption has arisen in the research literature that educating the public is the solution to address low levels of confidence.

To this end, governments and courts concerned with improving public confidence have undertaken a range of strategies aimed at educating the public. Public education and information campaigns, court media liaison officers, accessible websites, large national conferences and public surveys have all contributed to efforts to promote confidence in the administration of justice by engaging more closely with the community.

One of the more formal responses to the desire to engage and inform the community has been the proliferation of sentencing councils and commissions around the world. Such bodies are being used as conduits to improve the exchange of information among governments, the courts and the public.

The Rise Of The Sentencing Council

Sentencing councils that have developed over the last decade have arisen within the context of a somewhat paradoxical political and social environment. At the same time as overall crime rates have fallen in many Western countries, the judiciary has been coming under increasing pressure as the public claims a greater voice in sentencing and law-and-order auctions continue to feature in political campaigns. The status of judges and the courts more generally has been eroded over time by media polls and reports that the courts are “soft on crime” and that judges are “out of touch” with their communities.

Within this complex environment, sentencing councils have arisen as a way of engaging with the public and balancing the interests of the judiciary, the public, politicians and the media. Many of today’s councils have remits that include both providing a mechanism for incorporating community views into sentencing policy and educating and informing the public about sentencing issues. Both of these functions – providing information and allowing the community a voice in sentencing policy – build on the assumption that a better informed and more engaged public will have greater confidence in the courts and sentencing.

Some researchers, however, have questioned whether such councils can really effect any change in perceptions of either the legitimacy of the criminal justice system or the adequacy of sentencing policy and practice. In particular, it has been argued that sentencing councils cannot create more than a symbolic exercise in participation, without substantive effect. Some have argued that “public education” is a euphemism for bringing the public around to the “correct” way of thinking, rather than providing a genuine opportunity for deliberation, discussion and debate (Indermaur 2008).

This view is rather controversial. If education, information and participation are not the answers to improving public confidence, what more can be done to address the public’s lack of accurate knowledge about crime and criminal justice and thus to improve levels of confidence?

The additional component missing from the education approach is emotion. Education and information can only go so far in changing people’s perceptions of, and attitudes toward, the courts and sentencing. Education taps into the intellectual aspects of people’s attitudes. It provides people with information about the effective elements of the criminal justice system: the nature and prevalence of crime, how and why sentencing operates as it does, and the outcomes of court processes. But education cannot tap into the emotional aspects of people’s perceptions. It is often these affective components that play the more important role in shaping people’s attitudes. Indeed, research has shown the (often circular) interconnections among attitudes, beliefs, emotions and experiences.

The Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study (Warner et al. 2011) provides an indication of this disparity between people’s effective and affective responses to crime. Comparing jurors’ sentences with those actually imposed in the real cases upon which the jurors had deliberated, the researchers showed that the majority of jurors believed that the judge had imposed an appropriate sentence in the case. However, when asked an abstract question about sentencing in general for sex offences, violent offences, drug offences, and property offences, the majority of the jurors believed that sentences were too lenient. This “perception gap” – the lack of consistency between jurors’ views of the specific offence on which they deliberated and their general attitudes toward sentencing – was most pronounced for sex offences and violent offences. Given the highly emotive nature of these types of crimes, it is arguable that this finding nicely illustrates the difference between the effective and affective components that shape people’s attitudes. Although jurors were satisfied with the sentence imposed for the case in which they had heard all the relevant information, they remained dissatisfied with sentencing in general.

As attitudes to crime and punishment are often driven by emotive rather than instrumental concerns, public education must also address the symbolic and emotional issues that punitive attitudes reflect. For example, rather than attempting to improve public confidence in and support for alternatives to prison using only arguments based purely on economic grounds, policy-makers and governments could tap the affective component of public attitudes with the idea that people can change if given the chance through treatment and rehabilitation programs.

While informing and educating is typically aimed squarely at the intellectual aspect of public attitudes, ignoring the affective to focus solely on the effective addresses only part of the story of the relationship among attitudes, knowledge and confidence in the courts.

Unanswered Questions

With the general consensus in the field that improving public knowledge is a key strategy in improving public confidence, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that the issue of the effectiveness of education and information efforts has not been tackled. There are two components to this question: can education and information genuinely change people’s underlying attitudes? That is, is the provision of education and information an effective way of addressing the public’s lack of confidence? And if so, is this change durable and lasting?

The research is clear that when people are provided with more information, they become less punitive in their responses to survey questions. But it remains unclear whether this change reflects a change in people’s opinions – responses formed only when asked about a specific issue – or a change to people’s deeper underlying attitudes, their global, enduring orientation in general.

Some researchers have attempted to explain people’s punitiveness based on psychological theories of attitude formation. For example, Maruna and King (2004) identified factors that predicted support for community penalties. In their model, expressive predictors (measures of collective efficacy and trust, anxiety about youth, economic pressure and global crime salience) and core beliefs and values (measures of a belief that crime is a choice that people make rather than a product of their circumstances and a belief in people’s ability to change) had a strong effect on support for community sanctions, over and above the effect of both socio-demographics and instrumental factors (measures of direct victimization, local crime salience and fear of crime). A belief in people’s ability to change was the strongest predictor of support for community sanctions.

But unique and valuable as this research is, it does not address the issue of whether education and information genuinely changes people’s underlying attitudes. Indeed, this is a question that remains both unexamined and unanswered in the literature.

The same holds true for the issue of whether change in responses to survey questions represents durable change. It is clear that the provision of information changes responses in the immediate context of the survey, but is this change durable over time? This issue, too, remains both unexamined and unanswered in the literature. It is likely, however, that researchers will need to draw more heavily from the field of psychology in order to address this issue, as it is within that field, not the field of criminology, where substantial work has been undertaken examining the mutability and durability of attitudes. And it is likely that measures from the psychological literature, such as the strength of people’s attitudes, will need to be imported into the criminological literature in order to understand the effects of people’s attitudes on their behavior (strong attitudes will have significant effects and will resist even the strongest pressure to change, while weak attitudes will have little impact on a person’s thinking or actions and will be vulnerable to situational pressures). This kind of approach remains untried in criminology, leaving no evidence as to whether education and information can bring about real, enduring change.

Emerging Directions In The Field

Although the study of public opinion about sentencing has been of substantial interest to researchers for at least several decades now, the field continues to develop, with new directions emerging in both research and policy.

Emerging Directions In Research

Based on the well-documented methodological concerns with asking for top-of-the-head public opinion, in recent years some researchers have opted for a more deliberative style of discussion with respondents. The primary aim in such studies is to provide respondents with the information they might need in order to come to a reasoned, considered and thoughtful decision.

Deliberative polls are based on the kind of detailed dialogue that is critical to the generation of durable and informed preferences. By spending an extended period with respondents (such as a weekend) providing information, discussing the issues and allowing time for deliberation and debate, the deliberative poll aims to measure a kind of public opinion that is informed, nuanced and stable.

In a similar vein, but within the context of real criminal cases, is the kind of study undertaken by Warner and colleagues. Respondents in the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Survey were actual jurors, who had been in the courtroom all the through the trial, hearing the same information the judges were hearing. With that firsthand knowledge, and with additional information on crime and justice supplied by the researchers, respondents were able to give detailed, thoughtful and nuanced responses to the survey questions. While this study did not include measures of all the expressive factors, instrumental factors, and beliefs and values that may have affected respondents’ attitudes, it clearly presents a model for the future of research in the field. It is a methodologically strong and fascinating approach to the study of public opinion about the courts and may well represent a new approach in criminological research in this field.

Emerging Directions In Policy

Given the prominence of the media as people’s main source of information about sentencing, one of the ways in which courts have been working to improve public confidence is by working more closely with the media to increase the flow of information. Court websites now include access to judges’ sentencing remarks, allowing both the media and the public access to the full reasons behind an individual sentence. Courts are employing liaison officers who can explain sentences to the media in lay language and can create accessible summaries of complex cases. Information and education campaigns, organized by the courts themselves or by governments via the establishment of sentencing advisory councils, aim to inform and educate both the media and the community more generally.

It remains to be seen how courts, governments and bodies such as sentencing councils can address the affective as a way of improving confidence in the courts.


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