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The Australian Quarterly, Winter, 1984, 56 (2), 192-194.

PRISON SENTENCES AND PUBLIC OPINION REVISITED



JOHN RAY

In 1982 The Australian Quarterly published an article by me (Summer issue) which showed that the length of prison sentence thought appropriate by the individual in the street for various crimes was very much longer than typically handed down by judges and magistrates. The article represented what was, admittedly, only a first attempt at the dauntingly difficult task of comparing public opinion poll data with official statistics on sentencing practice. The very high level of public punitiveness revealed in the poll was bound to be greeted with dismay by many people concerned for penal reform. Critiques of my article were therefore to be expected. Both the trustworthiness of the findings and their public policy implications could be expected to be debated.

The one critique of my paper which has so far appeared debates both these things (Meure, 1982). Reasons are given why my findings should not be accepted at face value and the importance of any such findings is challenged. The serious weaknesses in Meure's approach do, however, seem to call for comment. Let us first look at the reasons he gives for not accepting my findings.

His first objection is that research in Holland has tended to show that the Dutch are fairly accepting of their own very lenient criminal justice system. I fail to see why Meure mentions this as my research concerned Australia not Holland. Is Meure asserting that there are no cultural differences between Australians and the Dutch and that the Dutch study produces better evidence about the attitudes of Australians than does the study of Australians? The proposal, once unfolded, is surely so absurd it hardly requires comment. If comment is to be made, however, might not one ask why Meure chose Holland as his source of overseas data? Would not the United States be linguistically, culturally and racially more comparable to us? I fear that the reason the USA was ignored could have had something to do with findings such as those by Duffee & Ritti (1977) -- who found that among a random sample of Pennsylvanians 75% of the respondents agreed that 'One of the major problems in preventing crime today is that we are making it too easy on convicted criminals'. This is highly consonant with the attitudes I found among Australians.

Meure's next objection is that other Australian research has shown that the public put prevention first as the best way to deal with crime. Is that any surprise to anyone? Is not prevention always better than cure? I am sure that the respondents in my survey would have preferred prevention too. What I was concerned with, however, was what we do when prevention fails. How do we treat the criminal once that person has, in fact, offended? Meure also points out that the public prefer prisons to be correctional rather than punitive. This too is not what I was asking. I asked how long sentences should be, not how criminals should be treated once in prison.

Meure's third 'objection' appears to be that another survey found that less than a quarter of the population are against the death penalty compared to only 52% of judges and magistrates. A clearer confirmation of my own findings I could hardly imagine!

Meure's next criticism of my research concerns the question I asked my respondents in relation to the number of years an offender should spend in prison. He asserts that I should have used the word 'period', rather than `year', and that I was, in effect, asking for long sentences. He assumes that the question inhibited people from indicating sentences of less than a year and asserts that the answers 'are' consequently unreliable. This is rather alarming dogmatism on Meure's part. I personally did approximately 20% of all the interviews for the survey and am, therefore, in a position to say what in fact went on. Respondents evinced no hesitancy at all in recommending short sentences. Periods of three or six months were in fact very common in the 'sentences' awarded for minor crimes. Good interviewing technique aims to put the respondent at his (or her) ease and to establish rapport. The whole point is to get the respondent to say what he or she really thinks. Some minor ambiguities in question wording are almost inevitable and a large part of the interviewers' task is to clarify any such difficulties. The great frequency with which short prison terms or non-custodial sentences were advocated for certain crimes by the respondents in my survey suggests that the ambiguity perceived by Meure was, at worst, a difficulty easily overcome by the trained interviewers used.

Meure's next criticism is of my small sample size. This is, of course, a common layman's mistake. In sampling, the representativeness is far more critical than the sample size. I used a sample of 113 yet some statistics books give tables to allow adjustments for small sample size only up to a sample size (N) of 30! The extra accuracy gained by sample sizes larger than 30 is, in other words, considered inconsequential for hypothesis testing purposes. This can perhaps be more clearly seen if it is realised that correlations (or effects generally) explaining less than 4% of the common variance would be shown as significant with the N I used. The actual gap observed between court sentencing practice and the sentences preferred by the public was generally so vast, however, that any probability tests were quite superrogatory.

Meure's final criticism concerns the difficulty of extracting anything from the official statistics, a highly unoriginal point. I expanded on these difficulties at length in my paper. My final point then (and now), however, is that in the case of most crimes, the mean sentences preferred by the public are so long that no conceivable set of assumptions could bring the actual sentencing practices as revealed in the official statistics anywhere near what the public would like. Difficult though actual sentencing practice may be to estimate, it does not obscure the fact that a vast gap does exist between the public and the judiciary.

If this is accepted, what are we to make of it? What, if anything, should we do about it? Does it matter? Meure evidently thinks that it does not matter. He says that, even if one assumes the reliability and accuracy of polls such as mine, 'it does not follow that the judges and legislators should "mirror" public opinion'. He says 'There is a strong case for the view that judges and legislators should lead and mould public awareness and sentiments'. Stalin or Hitler could hardly have put it more succinctly. In a similar vein Meure sings the praises of 'informed opinion' versus 'spontaneous, uninformed reaction'. The 18th century Tory opponents of the universal franchise would have agreed. Limiting the franchise to 'better quality' citizens was the method of Ian Smith in Rhodesia (as it then was). The Rhodesian experiment ended in civil war. It is astounding that the elitist and anti-democratic views put forward by Meure can be aired in the Australia of today. Can he be totally unaware of where views such as his lead? One hopes that such views are not the norm among academic criminologists. As a believer in democracy, I myself very much believe that the views and wishes of the public should be heeded. I have detailed elsewhere (Ray, 1983a & b) how I think that might be done.

References

Duffee, D. & Ritti, R. R. 'Correctional policy and public values' Criminology 1977, 14 (4), 449-460.

Meure, D. 'About public opinion polls and punitiveness' The Australian Quarterly 1982, 54 (4), 444-447.

Ray, J.J. (1982) Prison sentences and public opinion. Australian Quarterly 54, 435-443.

Ray, J.J. (1983a) Towards a more pragmatic penal system. Australian & New Zealand J. Criminology 16, 224-230. (Online in PDF format)

Ray, J.J. (1983b) Protecting the community first: A rejoinder. Australian and New Zealand J. Criminology 16, 242-243.






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