Public confidence in sentencing and the criminal justice system

The Sentencing Council has a statutory duty to have regard to the need to promote public confidence in the system when developing the sentencing guidelines and monitoring their impact. To achieve this, the Council must have an understanding of the public’s attitude to, and knowledge of, sentencing and the criminal justice system.

Public Knowledge of and Confidence in the Criminal Justice System and Sentencing reports on research carried out to help the Council meet its public confidence obligations. The research, which included an online survey of 2,000 adults representative of the population of England and Wales, provides insight into what drives the public’s attitudes and understanding of the system and suggests how the Council might reinforce and improve their confidence.

Among the key findings are:

  • Sixty-seven per cent of the public and 68 per cent of victims of crime said that the existence of sentencing guidelines improved their confidence in the fairness of sentencing at least a little.
  • Confidence in the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system is mixed, and varies according to demographic factors and involvement. Young adults (18-34), those in the highest socio-demographic group (AB) and BAME adults are particularly likely to be confident in the system.
  • Having contact with certain agencies in the system, particularly the criminal courts, emerged as a key driver of positive perceptions of confidence, as is experience of the system that has improved their understanding of sentencing.
  • Conversely, living in certain regions of the country, most notably the North of England, was a key driver of negative perceptions of confidence and the perception that sentencing is too lenient.
  • Around 70 per cent of the public think sentencing in general is too lenient and the public is particularly likely to regard sentences for serious crimes, like rape and death by dangerous driving, as too lenient. However, this perception tends to lessen noticeably when the public are presented with actual scenarios and sentences (based on real cases).
  • A majority of those surveyed were confident they understood terms like ‘life sentence’ and ‘statutory maximum sentence’, although under half felt confident they understood the term, ‘on licence’. However, qualitative discussions showed that actual understanding lagged behind perceived understanding.

The research was conducted for the Council by ComRes.