Public Knowledge of Sentencing Practice and Trends

The Sentencing Academy has published a new report exploring public understanding of sentencing in England and Wales. Public Knowledge of Sentencing Practice and Trends is authored by Professor Julian V. Roberts, Dr Jonathan Bild, Dr Jose Pina-Sánchez and Professor Mike Hough and is based on polling conducted for the Sentencing Academy by YouGov in September 2021.

Read the full report here.

Executive Summary:

This report describes findings from a survey of the general public conducted in 2021. The research contributes to the well-established and still growing literature on public opinion and sentencing. Unlike most surveys, however, the primary focus here is upon what the public know about sentencing: the knowledge which underpins their attitudes. Specifically, public estimates of custody rates and average prison sentence lengths were compared to the latest sentencing statistics. In addition, several questions tested respondents’ knowledge of changes in the use of imprisonment over the period 1996-2021. Sentencing practices have become more severe in recent years, as reflected in increases in the use of imprisonment and in average custodial sentence lengths. One aim of the survey was to determine whether the public was aware of this trend. 

First, respondents were asked whether crime rates were higher, lower or about the same now, compared to 1996. Most respondents believed that crime rates are higher now than 25 years ago: 30% chose ‘a lot higher’, 32% ‘somewhat higher’. In fact, although rates have been stable over the past three years, they are still lower than in 1996.

While the average prison sentence length has increased since 1996, most respondents were unaware of the increase in sentence lengths over this period. Over half (56%) endorsed the view that sentences are shorter now (19% ‘much shorter’; 37% ‘somewhat shorter’).

Similarly, while the average minimum term for murder increased from around 12 to 20 years over the same period, only 2% of respondents chose the correct option. Over half the sample endorsed the view that the amount of time served by offenders convicted of murder was shorter today.

In 2019, 96% of men aged 21 or over convicted of rape received terms of immediate imprisonment. The majority of the public under-estimated the custody rate for this offence, many by a considerable margin: 42% of the sample estimated the custody rate to be 25% or less. A significant minority of the public believe that at least three-quarters of adult men convicted of rape receive a sanction other than an immediate custodial sentence.

Approximately 80% of men aged 21 or over convicted of domestic burglary were sentenced to immediate custody in 2019. The public also under-estimated the custody rate for this offence; three-quarters of the sample estimated the custody rate for burglary to be 50% or less.

In addition to under-estimating custody rates, respondents also under-estimated the average prison sentence length for both offences. Although the average sentence for rape is currently over nine years, the average public estimate was 5.5 years. The average prison sentence for burglary is around 29 months; the average public estimate was 15 months.

These findings are consistent with findings from previous surveys going back 40 years. For example, the 1996 British Crime Survey found that only approximately one-fifth of respondents provided a roughly accurate estimate of the custody rate for rape. Although the imprisonment rate for rape was around 95% at that time, over half the respondents estimated the rate to be under 60%. For residential burglary, 61% of offenders convicted of the crime were imprisoned at that time, but the vast majority of respondents (70%) estimated that the burglary imprisonment rate was less than 50%. Twenty-two per cent of respondents provided an ‘about right’ answer.

The 2021 survey asked respondents whether they believed sentencing was too severe, too lenient or about right. Approximately two thirds (65%) of respondents endorsed the view that sentencing was too lenient. The percentage choosing this opinion rises to 76% if we exclude ‘don’t know’ responses – findings that differ very little from those in the 1996 British Crime Survey. Another YouGov survey in 2019 found that 70% of the sample endorsed the view that sentences were not harsh enough.

The survey also asked if people thought that judges and magistrates were in touch with the public. More than half the sample, almost six in 10, believed that judges were out of touch with what the public think. Perceptions of magistrates were little different: approximately half of the respondents believed that magistrates were out of touch.

A clear relationship emerged between attitudes to sentence severity and knowledge of key sentencing indicators. Respondents who believed that sentences were too lenient were significantly less accurate in their estimates of current sentencing practice. They were more likely to under-estimate the use of imprisonment. The trends documented in this report underscore the need for greater public education on sentencing. Reasonable people may well disagree about the appropriate sentencing response to crime. It is important, however, that views of sentencing rest upon an accurate understanding of current sentencing practices.