Response from Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (Sarah MacQueen, Anna Souhami and Susan McVie, University of Edinburgh; Fergus McNeill and Sarah Armstrong, University of Glasgow; Beth Weaver, University of Strathclyde). Read the Questionnaire Review documents here.
Proposed changes to ‘Sentencing and Prisons’
The consultation paper suggests that the proposed changes are introduced to improve the utility of the data and to help inform policy development. There is no information as to what the utility of data is expected to be or in what regard the data and findings will be used to inform policy. This would have been helpful in formulating the response to the consultation. Looking to the nature of the new questions posed, and the move towards questions addressing very specific issues (such as throughcare for homeless prisoners or the consequences of non-compliance in community sentencing), we have assumed that each individual question is of interest in its own right, limiting their ability to act as indicators of broader latent concepts, such as punitivity or otherwise.
With this in mind, there are some important points to bear in mind before fielding the questions proposed. There is a large body of international academic research that has explored public attitudes to crime, criminal justice institutions and processes, and punishment of offenders, and how these are constructed and shaped. It is thoroughly established (including by the most recent findings from the SCJS) that the public know very little about crime, criminal justice and punishment. It is further established that members of the public tend to overestimate national crime rates and trends, and to believe that the courts are lenient and punishments are ‘soft’ and ineffective. Imprisonment is often favoured as a form of punishment, it is argued, because very little is known about what real alternatives are available. Crucially, when people are asked about sentencing and punishment, in the absence of any contextualising information (i.e. in an information vacuum, as proposed here for the SCJS), respondents tend to make highly punitive suggestions about sentencing because they draw on archetypal images of criminals, victims, and the causes of crime – that bear little relation to the complex reality of cases being dealt with by the criminal justice system.
However, when research respondents are provided with scenarios or cases with information on the context of an offence, the circumstances of offenders and victims, and the available sentencing options, their opinions about dealing with particular crimes and offenders often mirror the actions taken by sentencers and practitioners. Moreover, it has been observed over a number of years that members of the public are generally supportive of rehabilitative, rather than simply punitive, ideals.
Applying this to the proposed changes to the SCJS, we would caution that members of the public are likely to know very little, if anything, about the specifics of the new SCJS questions (such as the benefits of community sentencing vs short-term imprisonment, the terms of community sentences and the consequences of non-compliance, the ‘risk’ posed by community sentencing, the nature of unpaid work, and prison throughcare). Moreover, the public’s support or otherwise for community punishments would likely be different if respondents were allowed information on which to base their judgements. It is absolutely right that public opinion should be sought on sentencing and other criminal justice issues, but the importance of sufficient information in shaping attitudinal direction and strength is critical.
There is a wealth of research on the experience, impact, beneficiaries and views of community sentences and specifically unpaid work (for Scotland, see McIvor, 2016; McIvor, 2010; McIvor, 2009; Armstrong and Weaver, 2010; Scottish Government, 2015; Weaver and Armstrong, 2011). In broad terms, this literature suggests that community sentences can make very significant and burdensome demands on those subject to them but that positive outcomes in relation to reduced reoffending and enhanced re/integration are possible. Such positive outcomes of unpaid work assignments tend to be associated with forms of community supervision that are experienced as useful and legitimate by supervisees. In relation to unpaid work, for example, opportunities for meaningful work, with built-in skill development, an identifiable end product and contact with beneficiaries tend to produce better outcomes (McIvor, 2009).
There is clear merit in seeking feedback on unpaid work via the SCJS, but such feedback will inevitably be de-contextualised and based on limited information, unless the survey can provide information to inform responses. More generally, it would be of greater benefit to seek feedback as or after unpaid work was carried out and communicate this to offenders and supervisors, so that an active link to the community is maintained.
Similarly, with regard to asking respondents how willing they may be to suggest ideas for unpaid work, it does make sense for citizens and communities to indicate the forms of service they would most value, and we are aware that arrangements to facilitate this are in place in Scotland. The proposal to capture the willingness that survey respondents have to engage in these processes is in line with the literature and such arrangements. However, asking people for ideas about unpaid work is better approached and tested through local dialogue rather than at the very generalised level that the SCJS allows. Again, contextualising information as to the value of the link between community beneficiaries and the local authorities implementing unpaid work would be likely to shape the responses the crime survey may generate.
In short, we argue that unless survey respondents have accurate information on which to base their responses, those responses may simply reflect lack of knowledge about sentencing, punishment and reintegration. That in turn may produce results that serve not to ‘discover’ but to amplify or exaggerate punitiveness because of methodological weaknesses in survey research.
A bigger concern about development of the SCJS is that people are being asked to comment on the next survey before the Government has made public the data from the previous one, so it is impossible for anyone to look at the recent responses to the questions they propose to delete. We wonder about this given the main findings report was published well over a year ago. Regular tinkering with the questionnaire seriously risks making it less and less useful as a tool for measuring change over time.
 Key texts bringing much of this work together include: Roberts, J. and Hough, M. (eds.) (2002) Changing Attitudes to Punishment: Public opinion, crime and justice, Cullompton: Willan Publishing; and Hough, M. and Roberts, J (2010) ‘Public Opinion, Crime and Criminal Justice’ in Maguire, M.; Morgan, R. and Reiner, R (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology 5th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Armstrong, S. and Weaver, B. (2010) User Views of Punishment: The Comparative Experience of Short Prison Sentences and Community Based Punishments. SCCJR Research Report No. 04 / 2010. Available here: http://www.www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010%2004%20-%20User%20Views%20of%20Punishment(1).pdf
McIvor, G. (2009) ‘Therapeutic jurisprudence and procedural justice in Scottish Drug Courts’ Criminology & Criminal Justice 9(1): 29–49.
McIvor, G. (2010) ‘Paying back: 30 years of unpaid work by offenders in Scotland’, European Journal of Probation, Vol. 2, No.1, 2010, pp 41 – 61. Available here: http://www.www.sccjr.ac.uk/publications/paying-back-30-years-of-unpaid-work-by-offenders-in-scotland/
McIvor, G. (2016) What Is the Impact of Community Service? In McNeill, F., Durnescu, I and Butter, R. (eds.) Probation: 12 essential questions. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Scottish Government (2015) Evaluation of the Community Payback Order <http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/03/3800/7
Scottish Government (2016) Community Payback Order Scottish Government Summary of Local Authority Annual Reports 2014-15
Weaver, B. and Armstrong, S. (2011) User Views of Punishment: The dynamics of community-based punishment: Insider Views from the Outside. Available here: http://www.www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202011%2003%20User%20Views%20of%20Punishment-1.pdf
Further questions related to this submission can be sent to:
University of Glasgow
University of Strathclyde
University of Glasgow
University of Edinburgh