Conditional Sentencing in Canada: an Overview of Research Findings

4. Conditional Sentencing and Public Opinion (cont'd)

4. Conditional Sentencing and Public Opinion (cont'd)

Introduction (cont'd)

4.4 Replicating Findings

One of the goals (seldom realised) of social science research is the replication of results. This was achieved in the current context. The 1999 Angus Reid survey included a question that had been posed to respondents by Marinos and Doob two years earlier. This question involved a case of assault causing bodily harm. Respondents in both surveys were asked to choose between the imposition of a conditional sentence and a term of conventional imprisonment.

Table 4.4 shows the support for the conditional sentence option across the two surveys. As can be seen, there was consistent support for the conditional sentence, and the level of support was unchanged from one survey to another. Since the surveys were conducted at two different time periods and employed different samples of the public, this finding suggests that there is a bedrock of support for conditional sentencing among members of the public.

Table 4.4: Replicating Findings: Public Support for Conditional Sentencing in a case of Assault (1997 and 1999)
% Sample Choosing Conventional Imprisonment % Choosing conditional imprisonment Total
Marinos and Doob (1999) 29% 71% 100%
Sanders and Roberts (in press) 23% 77% 100%

The results from these two surveys of the Canadian public, both of which used representative samples of the population, show that public support for conditional sentencing is quite variable, depending on the seriousness of the offence. The imposition of a conditional sentence of imprisonment for a serious crime of violence may provoke public criticism (particularly for crimes of sexual aggression). However, for the less serious offences, particularly non-violent crimes, there would appear to be considerable public support for the new sanction.

The next section identifies a second dimension (besides crime seriousness) which has an important impact on the views of the public: the number and nature of conditions attached to the conditional sentence order.

4.5 Public reaction to conditional sentencing depends on amount of information provided

One of the most well-documented findings in the public opinion literature is that people tend to be far less punitive when given an adequate amount of information. Several research studies illustrate the point.

Doob and Roberts (1988) randomly assigned groups of subjects to read either a summary of court documents relating to a sentencing hearing, or a newspaper account of the hearing. Both groups were then asked whether they found the sentence imposed to be too lenient, too harsh or about right. The researchers found that subjects assigned to read a summary of court documents were far less punitive than the respondents who had been given the newspaper summary of the sentencing hearing. This study demonstrates the importance of providing adequate information about the case.

Another common finding is that when people are asked a global question such as “Are sentences too harsh, too lenient or about right?” they tend to respond in a punitive fashion. Part of the reason for this is that people tend to have the “worst-case” scenario in mind: a recidivist offender convicted of a serious crime of violence. However, when given details about a specific case, respondents tend to be far more accepting of issues such as community-based sentencing or parole.

4.6 Contrast between public opinion surveys and public behaviour

Applications under section 745.6 of the Criminal Code (the so-called “faint hope” clause) provide a good illustration of the limitations of opinion polls. Results from the only poll dealing with the question of parole for life prisoners have shown that most Canadians appear to oppose the granting of full parole to prisoners serving life terms for murder. This cannot be the whole story however, since fully four out of five applications to date have resulted in a positive result for the application. That is, in 80% of cases, a prisoner serving life imprisonment for murder had his parole eligibility date brought forward by a jury reviewing his application according to section 745.6.

The explanation for the discrepancy between the results of the applications and the results of the opinion poll question would appear to lie in the amount of information available. Most Canadians may oppose parole for lifers when asked a general question, but change their minds when provided with a great deal of information about the specific prisoner making the application.

4.7 Application to the issue of conditional sentencing

These findings from previous research suggest that the public reaction to conditional sentencing may be influenced by the amount of information provided on the survey. A critical issue in the area of conditional sentencing relates to the optional conditions that are imposed as part of a conditional sentence order. This has emerged from a number of appellate decisions, and also from the academic commentary on the new sanction. Many observers have suggested that is the number and nature of conditions imposed on the offender that make the new sanction acceptable to the public. A conditional sentence order with few optional conditions that have little impact on the offender’s life may be perceived by the public as being no different than a term of probation. Such a conditional sentence order would probably be perceived as being too lenient, since it is supposed to replace a term of imprisonment.

In order to explore this issue, the survey tested a specific hypothesis, namely that public support for the imposition of a conditional sentence (over a conventional term of imprisonment) would increase significantly if the optional conditions were made salient. This hypothesis was tested in the following way. Respondents were given a brief description of a specific case. It involved a commercial break and enter committed by an offender with previous convictions for the same crime. A case of this kind would normally result in a term of imprisonment of between six months and one year. Respondents were given a clear and comprehensive definition of a conditional sentence of imprisonment and were the asked to choose between two sentences: six months in prison or a conditional sentence.

The sample was divided into three groups. For one third of respondents (Group A), no further elaboration of the conditional sentence was provided. People in Group B were informed about the specific conditions attached to the conditional sentence. Specifically, they were told the following:

If the offender receives the 6-month conditional sentence, he will have to remain home every night after 7.p.m. and on weekends. As well he will have to pay back the money that he stole, perform some work for the community and report to authorities twice a week for the next six months.

The final group (C) received this same description but the conditional sentence was twice the length of the term of imprisonment that was the other sentencing option provided.

The results showed that public acceptance of the conditional sentence was highly influenced by the presence of the information about conditions. Almost three-quarters (72%) of the respondents in Group A favoured incarcerating the offender. However, support for incarceration declined to only 35% once the conditions of the order were made explicit. Making the length of the conditional term of imprisonment twice as long as the alternative of conventional prison generated slightly more support for the conditional sentence option.

These results clearly show that it is not the serving of a prison term in the community to which the public object, but rather the absence of realistic conditions which have an impact upon the offender’s lifestyle. The consequences for judges wishing to ensure public support for a conditional sentence are apparent: the public support conditional sentencing of the order carries meaningful conditions that have an impact on the offender.

4.8 Summary

The findings from these two representative polls of the Canadian public can be summarized in the following way. First, Canadians still do not have a clear idea of the nature of the new sanction. It is likely that some people confuse the conditional term of imprisonment with a sentence of probation or a period of supervision on parole. Second, public support for the conditional sentence varies considerably depending upon the nature and seriousness of the offence of which the offender has been convicted. Support seems lowest with respect to crimes of sexual aggression, particularly those involving children. On the other hand, there would appear to be widespread public support for conditional sentencing involving the less serious crimes, particularly property crimes. Finally, the number and nature of conditions attached to the conditional sentence would appear to be critical to public acceptability. Public support for conditional sentencing is much greater if a number of optional conditions are imposed, and their existence made clear. In this respect, the position taken by the Supreme Court in R.v. Proulx is clearly consistent with public opinion with respect to the new sanction.

Date modified: