A country not divided: A comparison of public punitiveness and confidence in sentencing across Australia
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Changes to sentencing legislation are often introduced or justified on the basis of satisfying public opinion. If sentencing policy is a reflection of public opinion we should see a concordance between different sentencing policies and public opinion. This paper provides a comparison between Australian States and Territories in terms of two key measures of public attitude concerning sentencing: confidence in sentencing and punitiveness. These results are based on a comprehensive telephone survey (N = 6005) of Australian adults which utilized a stratified random sample of households from the Electronic White Pages. It was found that there were only minor differences in the key measures of public attitude despite the notable differences between the States and Territories of Australia with respect to sentencing policy. Differences in public attitudes across jurisdictions were small, accounting for less than 2 per cent of variation in confidence in sentencing and punitive attitudes scores. In addition, despite the predicted moderately negative association between confidence in sentencing and punitiveness, neither of these variables was related in any systematic way to jurisdictional differences in imprisonment rates. The major implication of these findings is that the wide differences in sentencing practice and policy between jurisdictions in Australia are not linked to differences in public attitudes, supporting Beckett's (1997) argument that sentencing policy is better understood as a function of political initiative rather than a direct articulation of public attitude.
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