Date: 03 Apr 2009

Public Attitudes and Sentencing Policies Across the World

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Abstract

Many Western countries have experienced a boom in prisoners rates, characterised as “carceral hyperinflation” or “new punitiveness”. Politicians and opinion makers assume that this reflects the demand of the public for more severe sentencing. This article analyses data on the attitudes of the population towards punishment from over thirty different countries taken from the International Crime Victim Surveys of 2004/2005. First, some key findings on punitivity are presented showing that in many countries the public prefers non-custodial sentences for recidivist buglars. Next, results are presented from a multi-level analysis of the correlates of punitiveness at both the individual and country level. This multi level analysis shows that individual characteristics explain very little variance in country differences in punitiveness. On country level, the level of common crime and the Gini coefficient, a measure for income differences in the country, have significant explanatory power. The often mentioned tougher attitude towards sentencing in the English speaking/common law countries is fully explained by this. Finally, the relation between the publics attitude towards sentencing and a measure of actual sentencing severity showed a weak and inverse relationship at country level.

I am indebted to Jan Van Dijk for his long term contribution to the execution of the ICVS and for his supervision of the preparation for this article.