Hard News by Russell Brown


Perception and reality in the criminal justice system

We're often told that the public overwhelmingly regards criminal sentences and sentencing as too lenient. Indeed, public opinion polls say as much: that judges are soft and out of touch. But when members of the public see and hear everything a judge does, and are given information about sentencing, that all changes.

Such is the headline finding of the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study, which was published earlier this year. It found that when jurors drawn from 138 criminal trials were asked questions about crime prevalence and sentencing in the abstract, their responses mirrored those of general population surveys, in which 70-80% of respondents say that sentences are too lenient.

But when they were in full possession of the facts, 90% of the jurors said the sentence imposed by a judge was either "fairly or "very" appropriate. And more than half suggested a more lenient sentence than judges actually imposed.

New Zealand surveys and studies have found similar public perceptions to those in Australia: people consistently overestimate the proportion of overall crime that is violent, tend to believe the overall crime rate is rising when it is falling, and believe that sentences are becoming less severe.

One example: this Auckland University study for the Ministry of Justice found:

 ... low levels of knowledge about some aspects of crime and sentencing. For example, in relation to sentencing, the misunderstanding of those surveyed tended to be in the direction of underestimating statutory maximum sentence lengths, actual sentence practice and time served in prison by offenders sentenced to imprisonment.

As the widely-cited paper Recent Trends in Sentencing and Penal Policy in New Zealand observes, the real picture on sentencing is not entirely even or clear. While the use of diversion and other solutions has grown over time, "penal intensity" has also increased. Between 1986 and 1996 especially, the prison population increased by 78% -- in part as a result of more serious offences being prosecuted, but also as a result of more lengthy prison sentences for serious offences and the curtailing of parole for such offences. The idea that we were far harsher on serious crime in the past is simply a myth.

The Howard League summarised Statistics New Zealand's Review of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics Report 2009 thus:

The number of people receiving a sentence of imprisonment annually rose from 6971 in 1999 to a high of 9209 in 2006 and fell to 7664 in 2008. The proportion of all offenders sentenced who received a prison sentence rose from 9% in 1999 to 11% in 2006 and fell to 8% by 2008. A fall of 2% from 2007 to 2008 in this figure coincided with the introduction of community based sentences of home detention, community detention and intensive supervision in 2007. In 2008, approximately 6% of sentences saw use of the newer community-based sentences.

So, essentially, the thing that reversed the steady rise in the proportion of offenders being sentenced to imprisonment was the introduction of home and community detention and intensive supervision for the least serious offences.

These are not nuances you will often find in news coverage, let alone in the widely-reported pronouncements of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. But they are important, and they raise interesting questions about public knowledge of the criminal justice system.

We're looking at the implications of the Tasmanian study this week on Media7. I will be interviewing Chief District Court Judge Russell Johnson and following up with a discussion with two journalists who have written extensively about crime and sentencing -- The Listener's David Lomas and Tony Wall of the Sunday Star Times.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, we'll need you to arrive at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.

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