Issues in the Criminal Justice Policy
Understanding Public Opinion on Sentence Severity
What do ordinary Canadians ‘mean’ when they say ‘Sentences are too lenient’?
Concern about the legitimacy of the criminal justice system
Does “knowing” that the public feels this way mean that sentences should be made more harsh?
Understanding Public Attitudes
What are people being told about sentence severity?
o What are they comparing to?
What offences are people thinking about?
o Worst case scenario
Estimates of recidivism(reoffend) rates = (overestimate)
Reasons for wanting harsher sentences (utilitarian goals: belief that are effective way of reducing
o What they wanted to get out of it
Nature of information available to people
Costs and opportunity costs of imprisonment
o More money spent punishing people means less money going else where
o 1 year in provincial institution = $172/day, $61,000/person
o Average household salary
1 year in Federal institution = $357, $130,000/person
News media coverage
Comparison of court based information vs. newspaper information.
63% judged sentence as too lenient
o Court documents
19% thought sentence too lenient
Give people information about costs
o People think its lenient
Remind people of the fact that the offender will be released
What makes a good news story about a ‘routine’ case?
o Make sentence look wrong Probably not just news media
Public Attitudes and Broader Policies
Knowledge of ability of the sanction to accomplish the goal (e.g., general deterrence).
When asked about best way to prevent crime?
o Canadians favour ‘social’ approaches over harsh sentences
People want results NOW
If want to see outcome, you have to wait 20, 30, 40 years to see impact
Desire for an appropriate ‘response’ to offending
Research Example (Case Study)
Cases presented to ordinary people to ‘sentence’ in which actual sentence appeared to be lenient
Workers in 32 workplaces (Australia)
70 minute talk about sentencing (legal principles, etc.)
Judge presented sentencing judgment without information on sentence, or possible range.
3 of 4 cases median sentence less than actual; 4 – 35% more lenient.
Once given more context/knowledge, they were more likely to think:
The sentence is about right
Criminal justice system IS capable of meeting the needs of the victims
Respects the rights of the accused
Treats people fairly
Criminal justice system is more effective in bringing people who have committed
crimes before the court and holding them accountable - imposing a level of justice
Huge variation across cases
General Conclusion: Public Opinion
Simple questions --> simple answers
Dangerous place if we ask simple questions and make large criminal justice policies on basis
Knowledge and opinion
And impact knowledge has on formation of the informed of an opinion
If we clarify things, dramatically changes peoples' perceptions
Caution on what ‘opinion’ means Relationship between policy and public opinion
Criminal Justice System -
Parts interact (not independent) – press release
Focus of the course: empirical evidence.
Need to evaluate evidence (not simply accept assertions)
Need to be careful about what can be generalized (e.g., across countries)
How should we design „criminal justice policy‟?
Large number of relatively specialized bills – little overall „theory‟
How do we assess public views of the criminal justice system
Complexities that need to be considered: Criminal Justice and Governments
Federal Government Law and Provincial Territorial Governments Administration of
OPP in Ontario
Toronto, Peel, Halton
But RCMP‟s various roles (Federal police, and „contract‟)
Federal role (e.g., police information systems)
Courts and Judges