Public goes soft on criminals and hard on judges

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The public would be more lenient on criminals than the courts if they were in charge of sentencing, a Home Office study has found. The report's findings, says Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, calls into question government crime policy for the past decade.

Most people are grossly ignorant about levels of crime and punishment in Britain and hold a widespread disregard for judges and magistrates, a new survey has discovered.

The report suggests the current government and its Tory predecessors are "playing to the gallery" by following the public's apparent desire for tougher sentences.

But detailed analysis reveals that most of the supposed thirst for locking up offenders and belief that our courts are full of soft-hearted judges is wrong. Sensationalist tabloid newspapers and unbalanced reporting is partly blamed for the misconceptions, although the judiciary are criticised for depending on "pomp and ritual", rather than explanation, to sustain respect.

Results from 8,500 adults questioned in the British Crime Survey in 1996 show that most people would prefer to use more alternatives to prisons, such as community sentences, and do not support the current policy of building more jails. Most also believe reducing unemployment and increasing family discipline are far better ways of tackling crime than tougher sentences.

The findings, by the Home Office's Research and Statistics Directorate, undermined many widely-held perceptions about the public's view of the justice system and gives a highly unflattering picture of the judiciary as outdated and aloof.

The report concludes: "The [survey] suggests that there is a crisis of confidence in sentencers which needs tackling with some urgency ... the findings suggest that a criminal policy of `playing to the gallery' and extending the use of imprisonment further is not appropriate.

"Firstly, there was little public support for building more prisons to address prison overcrowding. More importantly, the belief that sentences are too lenient is mainly a reflection of misperceptions about current practice."

While four out of five people questioned thought that judiciary was too lenient, when given a specific case they gave lesser sentences. Asked what punishment they would give to a 23-year-old man who burgled an elderly man, just under half wanted a non-custodial sentences. The burglar, which was a real case, was actually given a two-year jail term.

Examples of the public's "widespread ignorance" included 96 per cent of people thought reported crime had either risen or stayed the same between 1993 and 1995, whereas it fell by eight per cent. A small minority of crimes - from six to 20 per cent - are violent, but four out of five people substantially overestimated this proportion.

Eighty-two per cent of the sample thought that judges were out of touch with the public, while the figure for magistrates was 63 per cent.

The report comments: "The court system may not be entirely unique in continuing with eighteenth century strategies of pomp and ritual to sustain its authority."

For a copy of Attitudes to Punishment, telephone 0171 273 2084.