Three decades of public attitudes research on crime and punishment in Canada.

AuthorVarma, Kimberly N.


Criminology is often associated with research about offenders, victims, criminal justice professionals' decision making, operations, and policy. The power of the law to punish wrongdoers has led academics and policy makers alike to attend to offending and the reaction by the justice system--why people engage in crime, the nature and operation of the criminal process, and the objectives and outcomes of this process. What one is less likely to associate with criminal justice, however, is the role and power of the public. Their views, attitudes, and beliefs are often considered secondary, if at all important. One of Anthony Doob's contributions to the discipline in Canada and internationally has been his research commitment to understanding public attitudes toward crime and sentencing. His contributions have come in at least two forms. First, the content or the results of the studies are instrumental in informing policy makers and dispelling myths. But second, and perhaps more important, is his contribution to methodology--how best to canvass the public's views. The result is that Doob's research on public attitudes across more than 30 years has resulted in the development of a field of inquiry in Canadian criminology and has influenced a burgeoning literature internationally, most notably in the United Kingdom, United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

This article focuses on some of the key contributions of Doob's research, in conjunction with his colleagues, on public attitudes toward crime and sentencing. We argue that the depth of his research on public attitudes has fundamentally shifted academic and policy approaches to understanding public views of crime and punishment. The net effect is the development of a field of inquiry, including contributions around methodology, such as the inclusion of experimental design, contextual factors within questions, and an underlying commitment to understanding the public's view and its relationship to policy. We address some key findings coming out of his research, coauthored with others, as well as the nature and depth of his research. Finally, we comment on the important contributions this body of research has made to criminal justice policy in Canada. Despite the significant impact this body of work has had on researchers and policy makers, the policies that are informed by the research of Doob and his colleagues are being rapidly dismantled by the punitive criminal justice policies introduced by the current Federal Government.

A shift in approaching public attitudes towards crime and the criminal justice system

In examining the history of empirical research on public attitudes in Canada, one sees that systematic studies began in the late 1970s (Group Research on Attitudes toward Criminality 1981; Brillon, Louis-Guerin, and Lamarche 1984). Polling results from this time showed that members of the Canadian public believed that sentences were too lenient. While such results might appear straightforward, Doob did not see them that way. Early on (e.g., Doob and Roberts 1983, 1984 (1)), he drew attention to the fact that the public knows little about sentencing. If members of the public do not know what sentences are, then one has to ask what it means when they say sentences are "too lenient." Doob never faulted the public for their lack of knowledge. Indeed, he routinely highlighted the problems with media depictions of crime and sentencing and explained their impact on knowledge and perceptions (see, e.g., Doob and Roberts 1983). In fact, Doob highlighted problems with media characterizations of crime in a recent article discussing issues identified by the Canadian Sentencing Commission over two decades ago but still not addressed by current sentencing policies. He argued that the Commission identified a "lack of systematic information about sentencing" as an impediment to informed sentencing practices (Doob 2011: 281). As a result, Doob indicated, any interested and intelligent member of the public or judiciary was (and still is) unable to obtain systematic information about sentencing in Canadian courts.

But Doob did not end there. If the public could not access information about sentences or the context of offences, he would provide that information for them and then explore perceptions. He showed that providing context to the public about the operation of the justice system and sentencing practices goes a long way in allowing them to answer survey questions thoughtfully. For example, looking at the kinds of questions that are asked of the public is essential: ask a simple question, get a simple answer. But when respondents are provided with the opportunity to consider the effects of sanctioning, the costs of criminal justice measures, and the eventual release of the majority of prisoners, alternatives to imprisonment are more likely to be favoured (Doob 2000; Doob, Sprott, Marinos, and Varma 1998). Even when the public is forced to think about an offender as a person who, among many other aspects of her life, has offended, they are generally less punitive and more likely to see the human side of the offender (Varma 2006; Doob et al. 1998). Doob went on to show not only how context but also how choices make a difference. He pointed out that, even in polls that "ask a simple question," the simple answer is not necessarily punitive when there is any choice provided.

In short, Doob's research from the 1980s onward fundamentally shifted the way in which scholars approached public attitude research in the field and constituted the first set of systematic national surveys of the Canadian public (Doob and Roberts 1983, 1984). Described as "groundbreaking" by one scholar (Gelb 2008: 75), Doob showed, among other things, that by providing choices and specific contextual information about a case including the offence and the sentence, members of the public revealed a more moderate attitude and increased satisfaction with sentences compared to when they were asked broad-based questions about the severity of sentences in general.

Doob's framework for public attitude research as relational or contextual has its roots, in part, in his background in social psychology...

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