Punishment severity and confidence in the criminal justice system.

Date01 April 2013
AuthorSprott, Jane B.

"We will not tolerate gun and gang-related crimes in our communities," added Minister [of Justice, Canada] Toews. "By ensuring that tougher mandatory minimum sentences are imposed for serious and repeat firearms crime, we will restore confidence in the justice systern, and rnake our streets safer."

Press Release, Ministry of Justice, Canada

We will continue to work toward supporting legislation in key areas related to crime and security ... These provisions will help strengthen the confidence that Canadians have in out justice system.

Rob Nicolson, Minister of Justice and Attomey General (2011)

Our goal is to restore a sense of balance so Canadians can continue to be confident in our justice system.

Rob Nicolson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General (2012), qtd. in Galloway

Justifications for the greater use of imprisonment (as the harshest sanction available to Canadian judges) espoused over the last decade in Canada have often focused on "restoring public confidence" in the justice system. While all national political parties have proposed and promoted various "tough on crime" measures atone time or another, it has arguably been the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper which has most repeatedly and fervently invoked the (alleged) relationship between increased punishment and confidence in the criminal justice system as one of the principal rationales behind their harsher response to crime and criminals. As the statements of two Conservative Justice Ministers quoted above demonstrate, legislative bills such as Bill C-10--the so-called "omnibus crime bill" that received Royal Assent in March 2012--have largely been justified on the basis that they will restore or strengthen confidence in the system.

This research note makes one limited point: within Canada, confidence in the justice system appears to have little relationship to the rate at or duration for which people are imprisoned. While this finding clearly challenges one of the principal foundations underlying the recent barrage of harsher criminal justice measures proposed by the Conservative government, which have focused on greater reliance on imprisonment, if is not new, nor, for that matter, specific to the Canadian context. As a case in point, public confidence in and perceptions of leniency in sentencing in Australia were shown to have little to do with the imprisonment rates across eight different jurisdictions. Specifically, those respondents from jurisdictions with higher imprisonment rates were neither more confident in the justice system nor any less likely to believe that sentences were "too lenient" than those respondents from jurisdictions with lower imprisonment rates (Roberts, Spiranovic, and Indermaur 2011). In fact, there was relatively little variation across jurisdictions in confidence and perceptions of leniency in sentencing.

Criminologists have repeatedly reminded us of the well-documented lack of public knowledge around sentencing (e.g., Doob and Roberts 1988; Haines and Case 2007; Hough and Roberts 1999, 2004; Roberts and Stalans 1997; Roberts et al. 2003; Sprott 1996). The opinions about sentencing from the Canadian public are best understood as 'beliefs' rather than fully informed attitudes. Indeed, detailed sentencing data are not generally available to anyone, let alone ordinary members of the public (Doob 2011). Even if one were to overcome the difficulty in obtaining actual sentencing data in Canada, the incompleteness of the data sets as well as the complexity and inconsistent nature of sentencing patterns across measures and offences preclude any real "knowledge" of actual sanctions, particularly across jurisdictions (Doob and Webster 2008). Regardless, links between the greater use of imprisonment and public confidence are routinely asserted. As we will demonstrate though, the variation that exists across Canadian provinces in either perceptions of leniency in sentencing or confidence in the justice system more broadly bears little relationship to the use of imprisonment or the "punitiveness" of the province. Expressed more simply, we will provide empirical evidence undermining the notion that public confidence is directly linked to harsher responses to crime and criminals.

To this end, two questions from the General Social Survey for 2009 (2011) (2) on victimization constitute useful measures of our central construct of public confidence. The first question--which asked respondents about the degree of confidence that they had in the justice system and courts (i.e., a great deal of confidence, quite a lot of confidence, not very much confidence, no confidence at ail, or don't know)--captures, at least to a certain extent, the concept of public confidence in the justice system / courts as a whole. The second question--which asked respondents about their perceptions of sentences (i.e., too lenient, about right, too harsh, or don't know)--arguably captures the more narrow concept of public confidence in the sentences handed down to those found guilty of criminal offences. Although these two variables are clearly related (Roberts et al. 2011), it is equally possible that Canadians can have confidence in the justice system in general but not in the specific arena of sentencing (or vice versa). Thus, it would seem prudent to examine the relationship between harsher punishment and each of these measures separately.

The other principal construct of interest--punitiveness--deserves even greater consideration in terms of its measurement. Certainly, under the Harper government, an increase in the harshness of the treatment of crime and criminals has generally been translated into greater use of...

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