Judicial and political systems are often documented as the institutions or bodies that propel changes in our laws. However, the public outcry for reforming existing laws is often the springboard for these systems to initiate such changes. Intuitively, this is prudent, given that our laws govern a particular society, and its citizens have a right to influence changes in them. The difficulty lies in whether citizens have an accurate understanding of the laws that govern them. Of particular interest are the laws that maintain order--specifically, the Criminal Code of Canada. Not only is it important that citizens have accurate knowledge to challenge laws or initiate reforms, but also, laws have a denunciatory function and act as a deterrent to engaging in crime. Unlike in many other countries, in Canada, there is a single criminal code that governs the entire nation (for all 10 provinces and 3 territories). Canada's Criminal Code was developed to effectively provide every offence with a corresponding range of sanctions. Therefore, it is critical for citizens not only to be knowledgeable about what constitutes a criminal act but also to be aware of the penalty associated with that act.
The existing literature is limited in its examination of public knowledge of criminal justice and legal information. The few studies that exist seem to provide a consistent picture that reveals limited crime knowledge. For example, Roberts and Stalans (1998) note, from a governmental report, that 90% of Ohio residents who were surveyed were unaware of an alteration in drug laws as a consequence of recently passed legislation. In a Canadian study by Roberts, Grossman, and Gebotys (1996), Canadians were surveyed about their knowledge of a rape law reform in Canada that was implemented in 1983. Canadians were mostly unfamiliar with this popular, well-publicized reform, and this lack of familiarity was found to correspond with education level, suggesting that with more education, there was greater familiarity with the law reform. In the same study, participants were questioned about their knowledge regarding the Young Offenders Act (YOA)--which has since changed to the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA)--and found that participants were also unfamiliar with the YOA. These few studies suggest that public knowledge of criminal laws may be relatively poor. It is notable that there has been little research examining undergraduate students' awareness of the Criminal Code and of what constitutes criminal behaviour as defined by the Code.
Furthering our understanding of the public's knowledge of criminal acts, Allen (2008) concluded from his review of the literature that people tend to support both rehabilitation and punishment. Yet, other empirical studies have noted that the public often has complex beliefs about rehabilitation and incarceration, and it appears that there is greater support for sentencing practices that promote a sense of responsibility in the offender and ensure reparation for the victim than for sentencing practices that serve the purposes of deterrence (e.g., Cook and Lane 2009; Roberts, Crutcher, and Verbrugge 2007). The scant research on sentencing knowledge suggests that, in addition to unfamiliarity with the offences listed in the Criminal Code, the public also has limited knowledge of sentencing for these offences. Roberts et al. (2007) found that their participants were unable to name any of the 31 offences in Canada that have mandatory sentencing. Compared to the literature on crime knowledge, there is a much larger body of empirical literature that investigates public perceptions of sentencing. In the same study by Roberts et al. (2007), their survey of almost 4,000 Canadians revealed that sentencing practices were seen as too lenient. Perhaps the perceptions that sentencing tends to be lenient may be due to a lack of knowledge regarding which offences carry mandatory minimum sentences (at the time of the study, there were 31 offences that had minimum penalties). Roberts et al.'s findings parallel those of Hough and Roberts (1999), in their poll of British citizens, where it was found that they underestimated the severity of punishments handed out by the criminal justice system. Velazquez and Lincoln (2009) also found that when Australian citizens were asked to choose sentences for several different crimes, their sentencing was more punitive for violent and sexual crimes than for other crimes, with imprisonment being the most suggested penalty. Interestingly, despite public dissatisfaction with sentencing practices, it appears that members of the public generally agree with the type of disposition often made in cases. For example, in a study by St. Amand and Zamble (2001), where members of the public were asked to choose an appropriate disposition for a specific hypothetical scenario, participants tended to choose somewhat larger fines and longer jail terms than those represented as "accurate" sentences (i.e., consistent with what was found in actual cases), but these decisions were not excessively beyond what was considered typical dispositions for such cases. Hence, the public will often choose dispositions that are similar to current judicial sentencing practices.
Perhaps exposing students to some formative education on criminal justice or some experience in the field, whether as consumers or as passive affiliates, may have some impact on increasing knowledge. Kelley and Stack's (1997) study provides some preliminary results, suggesting that criminal justice courses may increase general crime knowledge. In their study, a standardized test in criminal justice was administered to graduating criminal justice majors and to students who were enrolled in an introductory criminal justice class. They found a significant difference favouring graduating seniors over introductory students. In a study by Lambert and Clarke (2004), college students majoring in criminal justice studies were surveyed, and their knowledge was compared with that of students who were majoring in other, unrelated disciplines. The results indicated that, although there was a statistically significant difference in knowledge of crime and death penalty issues between the two groups of students, the difference only favoured the criminal justice students over the other students on a third of the knowledge measures, and no differences were noted on the other two thirds of the issues. Nonetheless, despite the methodological limitations of these studies (e.g., not controlling for age, not accounting for classroom attendance), there appear to be potential benefits from enrolment and coursework in relevant programs to increase knowledge of crime and sentencing.
Another contributor to punitive approaches and unsatisfactory views of the criminal justice system may be the tendency to overestimate crime. Research that has examined the accuracy of the public in estimating crime statistics has consistently found that the public tends to give estimates well above reported trends and numbers. An early study examining citizens' ability to estimate recidivism rates for crimes that involve property, person, and sex offences showed consistent overestimations (Roberts and White 1986). A more recent study, by Mitchell and Roberts (2012), examined the public's knowledge of murder trends in England and Wales. They found that only 5% of their sample provided an accurate depiction of the murder trend (i.e., in this study, the number of murders in the country had declined slightly) and about a third offered an accurate representation of the country's homicide rate when asked to compare it with other European nations. In fact, it is a common finding that the public, including undergraduate students, provides more bleak estimates about crime than are justified. Vandiver and Giacopassi (1997; also, Giacopassi and Vandiver 1999) found that over 70% of students in introductory classes and over 40% of senior students tended to grossly overestimate the number of homicides that occur in the US (i.e., they estimated over 100,000, although the actual number, in 1994, was 23,305 homicides). There is also a consistent finding indicating that the public overestimates reoffending rates of those charged or convicted of crimes in general by large margins. For example, Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, and Baker (2007) surveyed residents in Florida and found that there was a consistency in their views of sexual offenders as a homogeneous group with regards to risk and in their estimate of how many would reoffend (i.e., mean recidivism was estimated at 74%, although most studies indicate that the actual overall recidivism rate is less than 30%). Much of this literature has focused on surveys of general crime and of the specific crimes of murder and sex offending.
The present study investigates the knowledge levels of young adult Canadians regarding the definition of certain criminal acts and their associated sentences, according to the Criminal Code of Canada. Although much of the research has focused on perceptions of the law and the criminal justice system, it was deemed important to assess young adults' knowledge before examining their perceptions. Hence, the present study focuses solely on knowledge of crimes and punishments. Using a sample from undergraduate students enrolled at a postsecondary institution in western Canada, we hoped that this would represent young adults in their late teens and early 20s. Indirectly, this inquiry also examines the strength of the deterrent powers of the law and punishments laid out in the Criminal Code of Canada, because it would be expected that, in order for deterrence to be effective, the public would need to be aware of what constitutes criminal behaviour and of what the penalties are for engaging in such behaviour. It was expected that most undergraduate students would be familiar with most criminal behaviours but not necessarily the...