There is a widespread perception that the public are very draconian on law and order: hang ’em, flog ’em, lock ’em up and throw away the key. In one sense they certainly are. Asked in this month’s ICM poll if sentences passed by the courts are too soft, too harsh or about right people overwhelmingly think the courts are not handing down harsh enough sentences. 77% think too soft, 18% about right and only 2% too harsh.

However, asked if the solution is to build more prisons and send more criminals there only 46% of people agree. 51% of people think you shouldn’t build more prisons and should instead look for other ways to punish people and deter crime. Only 42% of people agree that prison works, 49% of people think that it turns people into professional criminals who go on to commit more crime.

It would appear people don’t really think prison works, but at the same time wouldn’t want any alternative that would be seen as an easy option. They want harsher alternatives to prisoners, not nicer ones!

The first question though can also be interpreted though by looking at whether people actually have an accurate perception of what sort of sentences are currently handed down. Unless people work in, or find themselves the subject of the criminal justice system, the only contact they’ll really have with sentencing is newspaper outrage about whatever short sentence has been handed down for the latest heinous crime, and that doesn’t necessarily give a very balanced view. Last year YouGov did a poll for the Reader’s Digest that gave people several real life examples of court cases and asked people what sentence they would give to the person convicted, allowing them to compare the sentences people thought criminals should be given, and the sort of sentence they were given in real life. Here’s what they said:

  • A 16 year old pleading guilty to 12 charges of graffiti was in reality given a £100 fine, 76% of respondents would have given him community service.
  • A 14 year old found guilty of four counts of causing criminal damage to parked cars was given a 4 month referreal order. 53% of respondents would have given him community service.
  • A woman who racially abused a kebab shop owner when drunk was given community service by 45% of respondents, in reality she was sent to prison for 6 months.
  • A barman who stole £9000 from the tills at his work after being diagnosed with a medical condiction was in reality given 200h of community service and a suspended prison sentence. 33% of respondents would have given him a fine, 31% an 18 month prison sentence.
  • A businessman who conned a company out of £35m who had a previous conviction for stealing £1m from another firm’s pension fund was given a prison sentence by 90% of respondents, on average for 8 years. This is also what he got in reality.
  • A plurality (44%) of respondents thought that a battered wife who stabbed her abusive husband to death should have received no punishment at all. In real life she was given 3 years probation.
  • A crack-addict who broke into a home and stabbed the owned to death was given a life sentence by 50% of respondents, and varying lengths of sentence by most others. In reality he got a life sentence with a minimum of 27 years.
  • A man who shot and killed a burgular in his house was given a prison sentence of, on average, 5 years by 36% of people and nothing at all by 40% of people. In reality he ended up serving 4 years for manslaughter.
  • A man found with 200 images of child porn on his computer who pleaded guilty to posessing indecent images of children. 59% of respondents would have jailed him, with an average sentence of 6 years. In real life he was given only 8 months in gaol.
  • A ban abducts and rapes a 6 year old was given a life sentence by 52% of respondents and the death penalty by 27%. In reality he received 3 life sentences.
  • A driver 10% over the drink drive limit was given a £280 fine in real life. The average fine dished out by the 58% of respondents who thought it appropriate would have been £1718.
  • A man driving without insurance was given a £200 fine, respondents to the survey would have given him a two and a half thousand pound fine.
  • A mugger who attacked a man in the street, kicked him on the floor and stole his wallet was given a 2 year sentence. 91% of respondents would have given him an average sentence of 4 years.
  • A woman who acted as an accessory to her boyfriend snatching the bag of an old lady was given 50h of community service. 56% of respondents would have given her an average of 2 years in prison.
  • A man who raped three strangers he had forced into his car was given a life sentence, with a mininmum of 7 years. 92% of respondents would have sent him to prison, with the 63% who didn’t give him life giving an average sentence of 12 years.

Of course, in reality the complexities of the case that couldn’t possibly be put across in a short polling question may have resulted in a longer or shorter sentence. The question about the man shooting a burgular is the case of Tony Martin and the simple question asked here ignores points like the burgular being shot in the back as he fled and the fact the gun was illegally held, is also ignores the fact that Martin’s sentence was only eventually reduced after a plea of diminished responsibility due to Martin’s paranoia was accepted. No doubt in many cases the judge’s decision was influenced by the particular circumstances of the criminal.

The overall picture though isn’t one of the public being wildly more draconian than the actual legal system though – the public would give longer sentences to muggers, thieves and people in possession of child porn and larger fines across the board, but across the board there really isn’t a major contrast here between what sentences the public hand down and what sentences judges hand down.

So is the perception that being tough on crime is a vote winner wrong? Not necessarily – people who consider the issue of crime to be important and whose vote may be heavily influenced by crime policy may well be more right wing on the issue than people who really don’t care much about crime. Equally, just because demands for harsher sentences may be based upon misconceptions about how tough sentencing currently is, it doesn’t make that feeling any less of a driver of opinion.

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