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Study of jurors shows judges get it right on criminal sentencing

Media Release

10 February 2011

Ministerial media release

Minister for Justice Brendan O’Connor today welcomed a new study showing that the more informed the public is about judicial decisions, the more likely they are to agree with criminal sentences.

The study was funded through the Criminology Research Council and was released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Public judgement on sentencing: Final results from the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study is the first reported study to use jurors who are participating in real criminal trials.

“This study reveals that a majority of jurors gave a more lenient sentence than the one imposed by the trial judge and after reading the sentencing reasons 90% of jurors found the sentence delivered in their trial to be appropriate,” Mr O’Connor said.

This study contrasts with the results of numerous public surveys in which a majority of Australians thought that judges were not in touch with the public.

“These results show the great value of the public being informed about the facts of a case in order to understand sentencing decisions,” Mr O’Connor said.

“It should also give some comfort to the judiciary as they conduct their very important work.”

The study examined the responses of 698 jurors from 138 criminal trials. Participants were surveyed at various points to examine their knowledge of crime and sentencing and their perceptions of appropriate sentencing.

“Criminal law is a complex area and the decisions made in criminal trials affect not just the perpetrator but their families, victims and the community at large,” Mr O’Connor said.

“It is important that the right decision is made in criminal sentencing – not just the popular one.”

When asked about the level of crime only 7% of jurors thought crime had decreased, while 27% thought it had increased a lot (when most crimes have been decreasing for 5-10 years). These misconceptions about crime are consistent with Australian and international research.

The study showed respondents who held more punitive attitudes were more likely to think crime had increased and were less tolerant of judge’s sentences. It also showed a lack of consistency between juror’s views about the particular case they were deliberating on and their general attitudes to sentencing.  The difference was most pronounced in sex and violence cases.

The study also showed the value of giving jurors more information about sentencing patterns and crime trends and informing them of the judges’ reasons for the sentences that they have imposed.

The study was led by Professor Kate Warner and carried out by researchers at the Universities of Tasmania and South Australia. The report is available at www.aic.gov.au/publications;

Media Adviser: Jayne Stinson 0458 547 512 jayne.stinson@ag.gov.au