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The public’s view of punishment

You often hear that the public find court sentences too short. Professor Jan de Keijser emphasises that the gap is reduced if the public is given more information about a case and the sentence.

The more information, the smaller the gap

The vast majority of respondents agreed with a simple survey statement – ‘sentences are too light in the Netherlands’ –over the last 30 years. You could say that there is a considerable difference between the length of sentences that judges impose and the wishes of the public. Professor of Criminology Jan de Keijser brings some nuance to this picture. ‘If you conduct a different type of research, namely by presenting respondents with a specific case, laypeople become milder in sentencing. The more information laypeople are given, the more nuanced the sentence. If you give test subjects yet more information and even the possibility of asking questions to experts and judges, the sentence they impose is lower still. However, the sentence that laypeople reach still remains higher than the sentence that judges impose.’

This result could lead us to believe that if you continually give the public more information the gap will disappear. De Keijser: ‘Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that in practice. It’s difficult to make people better informed, and they often don’t want to be either. Various initiatives were taken in the Netherlands to inform the public, such as rechtspraak.nl, but it doesn’t seem to appeal to the general public. Furthermore, international research has shown that the effect of providing more information is fleeting. Participants received more information about court cases and were more nuanced in their thinking about sentencing in general, but the effect ebbed away and two months later they again had less nuanced ideas about sentencing.’

Could the media play a role by reporting court cases in a more expansive and nuanced manner? That does not appear to be the case. In a previous study De Keijser worked with the Brabants Dagblad newspaper. For a period of time the newspaper provided more information about court hearings in the form of nuanced reporting from a jury of laypeople that it had assembled. The researchers then measured whether the paper’s readers thought differently about sentencing than the readers of the Limburgs Dagblad newspaper, which had not reported extensively about court hearings. There did not prove to be any difference.

Gap does not form a threat for the criminal justice system

The gap between the public and the criminal justice system appears to be persistent, but the question is whether it threatens the legitimacy of the system. De Keijser’s research revealed another surprising finding: even if the public thinks that sentences are too light, they are by no means dissatisfied with judges or the criminal justice system. ‘There can thus be a gap without the system being threatened. Research has also been conducted into the possibility of closing the gap by introducing a lay system, for instance with a jury, as they have in the United States. The research revealed that the majority in the Netherlands was against such a system: people thought that criminal procedure should be left to the experts.’

De Keijser and his colleagues continue to conduct various strands of research into public opinion on sentencing. ‘The two current types of research – on the one hand presenting people with a direct question or theory on sentencing and on the other first giving them more information and then asking them their opinion on sentencing – have their disadvantages. In both cases the research method appears to influence the respondents’ answers. PhD candidate Lucas Noyon is therefore looking at the best method for measuring public opinion on sentencing. He is going to look at the merits of a third form of measurement: following a dialogue between the public and the Public Prosecution Service.’

The Dutch are not in favour of a jury of common people, as is customary in the United States.
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