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Justice needs to be seen to be done.

November 2nd 2010

Last week, the Nuffield Foundation published a new piece of research on attitudes towards the mandatory life sentence given to people convicted of murder in the UK.

One of its main findings was that there was limited understanding of what a life sentence actually was, and that “perceptions are systematically biased towards seeing the system as being more lenient than is in fact the case”.

This is a finding that repeatedly occurs in other pieces of research examining perceptions of the criminal justice system. For example;  Analysis of the 1996 the British crime survey showed that the public routinely believe punishments towards criminals are more lenient than they actually are, and when presented with detailed cases, tend to be constituent or more lenient than judges.

It would be easy to place blame for the ignorance about the way the criminal justice system works on the media – so let’s do that! The media’s reporting of court cases tend to be sensationalist, focused on the gory details and being inaccurate about the actual effect and meaning of prison terms. The net result of this is to undermine confidence in the criminal justice system to the extent that the public believe it to be more lenient than it actually is. Of course, urban myths and some historic cases of undue leniency from a judge contribute to this as well.

One of the key features of a legitimate justice system is not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done. The current lack of knowledge about what punishments mean in practice undermines the criminal justice system, and its perceived leniency undermines the intended deterrence aspect of punishment.  Part of the solution to this must be for judges to explain more clearly what sentences actually mean.

Legislative changes are also an option. Instead of fixed term jail sentences which can leave the public unaware of what period of time is spent inside before a convicted person applies for parole, it would make sense for Judges to specify minimum and maximum periods of time, plus conditions that must be fulfilled if the offender is to be released early. For example, instead of sentencing a convicted fraudster to eight years in prison as may occur currently (with the fraudster able to apply for early release after four years) a judge simply sentences the fraudster to “four to eight” years and specifies a series of conditions that need to be fulfilled if the fraudster wishes to be released after four years and before the full eight years are up. Additionally the home office should provide annual statistics illustrating the actual punishments (taking the average across the whole country) given for each crime.

Such measures would have the effect of increasing confidence in the criminal justice system, and thus enabling justice to be done and seen to be done.



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