Public Perceptions of Sentencing Practice in Victoria

When Borce Ristevski was sentenced to nine years in prison back in 2019, the public was outraged that such a sentence was considered appropriate given the nature of his offending.

The reality is that this outrage was not a one off. The National Sentencing Survey conducted in 2009 found that 59 per cent of Australians felt that sentences were too lenient, and 75 per cent of Australians thought that judges were out of touch with community attitudes. The Victorian sample was perhaps even more pessimistic, with only 28 per cent of people suggesting that they were satisfied with court decisions.

This trend has undoubtedly carried over into the present day, with 2017 polls in Victoria suggesting that 83 per cent of Victorians believe there has been too much leniency for sexual offences, while the number was 75 per cent for violent offences.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is that these perceptions seem to completely reverse when Victorians are placed in the shoes of judges and asked to make sentencing decisions themselves. In the 2017 Victorian Jury Sentencing Study, 987 members of the public were asked to give their opinions on an appropriate sentence after hearing submissions from the prosecution and defence in the cases they had adjudged. The results were intriguing—87 per cent of Victorians believed that the judge’s sentence in the case they had observed was “very appropriate” or “fairly appropriate” and nearly 62 per cent of participants suggested a sentence that was more lenient than the judge. In fact, judges were twice as likely to send people to prison.

Disappointingly, this exposure to the sentencing system did not appear to sway the general attitudes of those involved. Most of the participants believed that the case they had witnessed was an exception to the rule, and within 9 months, virtually all who were interviewed had reverted back to their original positions on sentencing.

Research suggests that this is because the Australian public has a very punishment-oriented attitude towards crime. The ultimate reason for this discrepancy—the Sentencing Advisory Council suggests—is because of the commercial media, which ensures that people remember the violent and the extreme, rather than the ordinary, which creates the illusion that crime rates are increasing and need to be controlled.

That being said, the public also has a soft spot for rehabilitation. In the 2017 Jury Sentencing Study, participants placed much more emphasis on rehabilitation than in deterring crime, which was last on their list of priorities. This was essentially the opposite of judges. Participants also preferred that money be invested into alternatives to prison rather than building more prisons.

All of this research suggests that perhaps it is neither judges nor the public who are in the wrong. People are confused, and that confusion can only be resolved through more measured crime reporting in the media, and through education that gives Victorians an opportunity to see the system at work.