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Justice 1 Committee

PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARDS SENTENCING AND ALTERNATIVES TO IMPRISONMENT

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SP Paper 537

Session 1 (2002)

 

Executive summary

1. Introduction

Though recent years have seen increasing interest in public attitudes towards criminal justice, there has been surprisingly little research on the topic - at least in Scotland. Against this backdrop, the Justice 1 Committee of the Scottish Parliament commissioned NFO System Three Social Research to carry out a study of public attitudes towards sentencing and alternatives to imprisonment. The research took the form of a nationally-representative survey of 700 Scottish adults and a series of focus group discussions.

This summary highlights the main themes and conclusions emerging from the research. Detailed findings relating to them can be found in the main text as referenced.

2. General views and knowledge of crime

· Although there is a high level of public interest in crime and justice, in general, this outstrips actual knowledge. (Section 2.1)

· Two widespread misconceptions of obvious relevance to public perceptions of sentencing are that, first, crime is increasing and, secondly, that it is increasingly violent and random in character. (Section 2.2)

· Across the focus group discussions with all age groups, one of the major factors felt to be driving both violent and acquisitive crime was drug misuse or, more specifically, heroin addiction. While there was widespread antipathy towards `junkies' or addicts, they were also often seen as victims in their own right - a perspective with clear implications for views of appropriate sentencing. (Section 2.2.2)

· Much of the `crime' which concerns people is committed by young people, not `hardened criminals', and is relatively mundane in character. Nevertheless, these incidents of `incivility' contribute to a discourse of social breakdown and to a feeling of generalised insecurity, especially among older people. This, too, undoubtedly informs public attitudes towards the workings of the criminal justice system as a whole. (Section 2.2.3)

3. Views and knowledge of the criminal justice system

· Both the survey and the focus groups suggest a lack of public knowledge about - but also a lack of public confidence in - the way that the Scottish courts deal with offenders. (Section 3.1)

· This lack of confidence is partly focused on the Judiciary, who are still seen as `out-of-touch' with ordinary people and as erratic and inconsistent in their judgements, though it also reflects a concern with system effectiveness. (Section 3.2)

· There is also a persistent concern about inconsistency in sentencing - though this is balanced, to some extent, by a belief in the importance of discretion and `treating each case on its merits'. (Section 3.4)

· The vast majority of the Scottish public sees current sentencing practice as too lenient - though this may reflect received wisdom more than a strongly-held belief, since people tend to favour a less punitive approach when asked to consider the details of specific cases. (Section 3.5)

4. Sentencing decisions

· Members of the public feel that they know - and do actually know - little about the sentencing options available to the courts in Scotland. Most are unable to name any non-custodial disposals except fines and community service orders. The latter, in particular, are thought by the public to be much more common than they actually are. (Section 4.1)

· Despite the general perception that the courts are too lenient, for the two specific scenarios examined as part of the study, members of the public tended to opt for sentences that were broadly in line with those likely to have been imposed. (Section 4.2)

· There was particular support for the use of drug treatment and testing orders, once details about the drug habits of the offenders in the scenarios were made known to participants. Similarly, the focus groups suggested relatively widespread support for treating drug offenders differently and for providing - and compelling them to use - dedicated treatment services. (Section 4.4.5)

· More generally, the idea of rehabilitating offenders is viewed positively - though the arguments for doing so vary, as do suggested methods. (Section 4.3)

· The public quite clearly favours greater `truth in sentencing'. Current arrangements for early release are viewed as difficult to understand or to justify and contribute to a public discourse of cynicism and distrust about the way the criminal justice system operates. (Section 4.4.6)

5. Views of prison and alternatives to prison

· Most people say they know relatively little about Scotland's prisons, with views tending to be based more on media and fictional representations than on direct experience. (Section 5.1)

· While there is a widespread perception that life in prison is `too soft', there is also evidence that many people have doubts about the effectiveness of prison in preventing reoffending and about its appropriateness for less serious offenders. (Section 5.2, Section 5.3)

· There is particular concern about the effectiveness of imprisonment for drug-related offenders, since the lack of appropriate services and widespread availability of drugs within prison are seen as exacerbating the underlying problem. (Section 5.4)

· Although many people are sceptical about the way that community service orders currently operate, there is relatively widespread support for the principle of the disposal - especially if it can be implemented in a way that is visible, makes a connection between the punishment and the community in which the crime was committed and can be properly resourced and enforced. (Section 5.6.1)

· There is strong support for reparation and, to a lesser extent, mediation schemes although these should not operate as a soft option or escape route from other forms of punishment and should only be offered in suitable (and probably more minor) cases. (Section 5.6.1, Section 5.6.2)

· There is a widespread view that prison costs too much and that savings should be made, either by cutting back the facilities available to inmates or by diverting offenders into more constructive, community-based disposals. (Section 5.7)

6. Conclusions

· Public views of appropriate sentencing policy are underpinned by important misconceptions about the nature and extent of crime in Scotland - in particular, about crime trends and the prevalence of violent crime.

· There is a pressing need to restore public confidence in the courts and the judiciary - by providing better information to the public about the work of the courts; looking at ways of improving perceptions of consistency and fairness in sentencing; and finding ways of presenting the judiciary in a positive light.

· Despite initial calls for harsher sentencing, the research suggests that constructive alternatives to imprisonment can be `sold' to the public - at least in relation to particular types of offences and with certain conditions and caveats. Moreover, there seems to be widespread acceptance of the need to treat drug offenders differently.

· More generally, there may be a need to address public expectations of what sentencing and punishment can achieve - in particular, to shift discussion away from crime control towards protecting the public from dangerous predatory offenders; promoting consistency in sentencing; and providing cost-effective programmes to support rehabilitation.

1 Introduction

Recent years have seen increasing interest in public views of the criminal justice system. This has been driven by a number of factors. First, there have been a number of high profile miscarriage of justice cases (mainly in England and Wales) which have arguably dented public confidence. Second, there has been a growing recognition within criminal justice agencies, as in other public sector organisations, of the importance of taking account of the views of users and potential users. Thirdly, there has been a persistent suggestion, fuelled by political and media debate, that sentencing practice is significantly out of step with public opinion and, in particular, that members of the public would like to see a `tougher' sentencing regime.

Surprisingly, then, public views of sentencing have been the focus of little serious study - at least in Scotland, though there have been a small number of important studies in England and Wales.1 This work has tended to support the view that there is a demand for tougher sentencing; but it has also indicated that members of the public often have significant misconceptions about the criminal justice system and that, when given information about specific cases, tend to favour sentencing options broadly in line with those actually given.

Against this backdrop and in order to inform its on-going review of the criminal justice system in Scotland, the Justice 1 Committee of the Scottish Parliament commissioned NFO System Three Social Research to carry out a short piece of work examining public attitudes towards sentencing and alternatives to imprisonment in Scotland. This research, which was carried out between April and July 2001, consisted of a representative survey of the adult Scottish population and a series of focus group discussions. The team at NFO System Three was advised during the course of the research by Dr Neil Hutton, co-director of the Sentencing Research Centre at Strathclyde University:

The main aims of the study were as follows:

· to set public views of sentencing in the context of broader attitudes towards crime and criminal justice

· to assess knowledge and understanding of current sentencing practice

· to explore views of the adequacy and appropriateness of current sentencing, with particular reference to the use of imprisonment and alternatives to imprisonment

1.1 Structure of the report

In the remainder of the opening chapter, we provide a brief overview of the research methodology. Sections 2 and 3 examine general views of crime and criminal justice and public knowledge about the issues. Section 4 looks at views of how sentencing decisions are and should be made and asks what the public thinks we should do with people who are convicted of crimes. Section 5 looks specifically at views and opinions of prison and its alternatives. Finally, Section 6 draws out some general conclusions from the research.

1.2 Methodology

The decision to combine qualitative and quantitative approaches reflected the need both for nationally representative baseline information about public attitudes and to avoid over-simplification of complex issues. The two elements were, therefore, intended to be complementary.

1.2.1 Focus groups

For each focus group, 8-10 people were recruited to attend the discussion in a venue such as hotel or community centre. A small financial incentive was given to attend and to cover any childcare, travel or other associated costs. Participants were not previously known to each other, except by chance.

The aim of sampling in focus group research is not to achieve representativeness in any statistical sense but to ensure that, across the sample as a whole, as wide a range of views and experiences as possible are included. That said, within any given focus group the aim is to achieve a high degree of homogeneity among participants, in order to create an environment within which individuals feel comfortable and able to contribute. This means avoiding a situation in which, for example, a 19 year-old unemployed man is asked to take part in a discussion with a group of middle-aged professional women. Each focus group is, therefore, segmented on the basis of a number of key criteria - in this case, relating to age, sex and socio-economic group. The structure for the 9 groups is shown in the following table. The first four of these took place in advance of the survey, with the remaining five carried out afterwards

Table 1-1: Sample structure for focus groups

Group

Age

Gender

Class

Location

1

Male

18-29

ABC1

Edinburgh

2

Female

30-44

ABC1

Edinburgh

3

Mixed

60+

C2DE

Edinburgh

4

Male

60+

C2DE

Glasgow

5

Female

45-59

ABC1

East Kilbride

6

Male

18-29

C2DE

East Kilbride

7

Female

30-44

C2DE

Aberdeen

8

Male

45-59

C2DE

Aberdeen

9

Female

60+

ABC1

Aberdeen

Each focus group lasted around an hour and a half and was moderated by a member of the research team from NFO System Three. With the agreement of participants, the proceedings were tape-recorded and transcribed for subsequent analysis, using the software package QSR N5.

A copy of the topic guide for the focus groups, which acts as a checklist for the moderator and gives a loose structure to the discussion, is included in Appendix A.

1.2.2 Survey

In order to stay within the time and cost constraints of the study as a whole, it was decided to limit the sample size for the survey to 7002. Although relatively small for an exercise of this kind, this nevertheless yields results that are accurate to within _4% for a response by 50% of all those interviewed at the 95% confidence interval. This means its limitations are greater in relation to the possibilities for sub-group analysis, since the smaller the total sample size, clearly, the fewer respondents in each demographic sub-group. As the main aim of the exercise, however, was to provide a broad indication of attitudes across the population as a whole, this sample size was felt to be acceptable and appropriate.

The sample itself was based on a form of tightly-controlled quota sampling. A series of 70 Enumeration Districts were selected as `sampling points' at random across Scotland (with the probability of each being chosen proportionate to its population). Within each of these, interviewers worked to pre-set quotas, based on age, sex and working status and drawn from available Census and other socio-demographic information for that area.

All fieldwork was carried out in-home by interviewers recruited and trained by NFO System Three. The interview lasted, on average, 20 minutes. A copy of the questionnaire, which was designed by the research team in collaboration with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, is included in Appendix B. This drew, to some extent, on questions used in previous studies in England and Wales, though also included a significant number of new questions, some of which were based in issues arising from the first round of focus groups.

Findings from the quantitative and qualitative elements of the study are, as far as possible, woven together in the analysis that follows, with the aim of allowing each to inform the other.

1.2.3 A note on the presentation on quantitative data

Certain conventions are used throughout this report in the presentation of tables. Nil percent or missing data is indicated by a dash (-). Figures between zero and 0.5% are indicated by a zero (0). Figures between 0.5% and 1.0% are rounded to 1%. In all other cases, figures are rounded to the nearest whole number. This means that the sum of constituent items may not always total 100%. The same is true of the figures presented in the report.

1.2.4 A note on the presentation on qualitative data

The report makes extensive use of direct quotations from the interviews, since these capture very effectively the tone and nuances of the discussions. These often take the form of excerpts of conversation, since the discussions often had a genuinely dynamic character, with participants agreeing with, building upon and, occasionally, challenging each other's contributions. In any case, the use of an asterisk indicates a new speaker.

In the use of direct quotations throughout the report, a standard ellipsis, . . ., is used to signify a natural pause in respondents' speech. An ellipsis in square brackets, [...], is used to signify that a section of the transcript has been omitted for the sake of brevity or clarity. Text in square brackets has been added by the authors to clarify points made by focus group participants.

2 General views and knowledge of crime

The literature on public perceptions of crime is now perhaps almost as extensive as that on its actual prevalence and, increasingly, the reduction of `fear of crime' is being viewed as a distinct policy objective in its own right. There has, however, been little attempt to connect debates about these issues to consideration of public attitudes towards sentencing. There are at least two good reasons for doing so. First, it seems reasonable to assume that what we think should be done about crime (and with offenders) is, in some way, linked to our understanding of the nature and extent of the `crime problem'. Secondly, both sets of issues are connected by a series of broader discourses relating to crime causation, social change and social order.

This chapter, therefore, focuses on what people think about crime in Scotland: how much there is, what form it takes, whether it is rising or falling, who commits it and what causes it. In places, these views are tested against what is known about the problem of crime as officially defined by police statistics. First, however, we set this in the context of how interested people say they are in law and order issues and how much they feel they know about the 'crime problem'.

2.1 How much do people think they know about crime and justice?

It may seem self-evident, given the popularity of both media and fictional representations of the issue, that crime interests people. Over a third (36%) of those people interviewed for the survey said they were `very interested' in law and order issues and a further half (52%) that they were `fairly interested'. Just 12% said they were `not very' or `not at all' interested in the topic.

Figure 2-1: General interest in crime and law and order issues (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

There was a strong age effect here, with older people much more likely than younger people to say they were `very interested'. Not surprisingly, perhaps, people who had been a victim of crime (both ever and in the last 12 months) were also more likely to say they were `very interested'.

Table 2-1: General interest in crime and law and order issues, by age and whether have fallen victim to crime ever and in the last twelve months (%)

 

 

Total

Age

Victim of crime - ever

Victim of crime - last 12 months

 

18-29

30-44

45-59

60+

Yes

No

Yes

No

Very interested

36

19

31

45

46

44

29

51

34

Fairly interested

52

58

57

48

44

49

55

43

53

Not very interested

10

17

8

7

9

5

14

4

11

Not at all interested

2

4

2

1

2

2

2

-

3

Don't know

0

1

0

-

-

0

0

1

0

Base: All respondent (n=720)

This does not, however, necessarily mean that people feel they know a great deal about the issue. When asked how much they felt they knew about `how much crime there is in Scotland', six out of ten (59%) said they knew `not very much' or `nothing at all' and just 7% felt they knew `a lot'. As we shall see later (see Section 3.1), people tended to feel similarly under-informed about the workings of the criminal justice system.

Figure 2-2: How much known about how much crime there is in Scotland (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

Although people were more confident of their knowledge about the amount of crime than about the working of the courts or the prison system (see Sections 3.1 and 5.1) it is striking that just 7% say they know `a lot' about this issue. Even among those who say they are `very interested' in law and order, the figure rises to just 13%.

Why is this? The most obvious reason is that, despite the apparent pervasiveness of the issue, most people, most of the time, are not directly affected by crime. Though 43% of those interviewed said they had been the victim of a crime that was reported to the police at some point in their lives, just 10% said that this had happened within the last 12 months. For most people, then, knowledge about crime tends to be gleaned from the media (both national and local) and from widely-circulated tales of other people's misfortunes. There is, moreover, a recognition that such sources are not always entirely reliable or that they tend to dwell on newsworthy or extreme incidents. As one woman put it:

*It is very much second-hand knowledge. [...] with a lot of media you need a huge amount of salt to go along with it. If it makes a good story that is what you're going to hear about - good news isn't going to be in the newspapers.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

So, although people tend to find crime and criminal justice interesting, they tend not to claim any great knowledge about the issues. As we shall see in the remainder of this chapter, and in the following one, this self-perception seems largely accurate, in that members of the public hold a number of important misconceptions about the nature and extent of crime and about how it is dealt with by the criminal justice system. Although it would be naïve to think that this means that the public can simply be `educated out of' particular views, equally, it needs to be recognised that public views about issues like sentencing are not always underpinned by a high level of understanding about crime and justice.

2.2 Views of crime in Scotland, now and in the past

From both the survey and the focus groups, it is clear that - despite evidence to the contrary from both police statistics and crime surveys3 - most people in Scotland think that crime is increasing rapidly. Indeed, almost half of those interviewed for the survey (45%) thought that there was `a lot more' crime than five years ago, while a further 29% thought there was `a little more'.

There is a significant difference between men and women here, with the latter more likely to believe that there is 'a lot more' crime. There is also a very clear age effect, with older people - and those aged 60 and over in particular - significantly more likely to see crime as rising.

Figure 2-3: Views of change in crime rate in Scotland over the past five years, by age group (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

This should not, however, necessarily be taken as evidence that this group is especially `fearful' about their own victimisation - other research indicates that older people are no more likely than younger people to see themselves or the areas they live in as being `at risk'4 - but it may be linked to a widespread view among older people, evident in the focus groups, that society as a whole is more chaotic and atomised than in the past.

There is also evidence of a difference by socio-economic group - while 32% of those classed as AB see there as being a `lot more' crime than five years ago, this figure rises to 55% of those classed DE.5

Figure 2-4: Views of change in crime rate in Scotland over the past five years, by socio-economic group (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

If there is a general consensus that crime is increasing, three specific issues stand out in relation to the causes of this increase: violence, drug-related crime and young people.

2.2.1 `A dreadful reflection on society': Perceptions of violent crime

It is not just the case that most people think crime is increasing: there is also a widespread view that it is increasingly random and violent in character. Attacks on older people and on women, in particular, were often cited in the focus groups as evidence of a fundamental change in the `morality' of crime.6 Violence committed by women was also mentioned in this context.

*We are reading in the papers every day about old ladies, not necessarily old ladies, all ages, being mugged. Ten years ago I would have walked home from town in the evening in the light nights quite happily on my own. Nowadays I just wouldn't dream of doing that and I don't live far out of town. I would take a taxi purely for security reasons which I think is a dreadful reflection on society.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

*Attacks on women has multiplied an awful lot since I was young.

*INTERVIEWER: Sexual attacks?

*And violence. You hardly heard of it when I was a laddie.

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

*There is a lot more violence.

*A hell of a lot more violence.

*Whether it's drug-related or more alcohol or whatever but there is a lot more violence. There is a lot of violence between women that you would never have heard of before. You hear about women taking bits out of each other. There are all sorts of things. It's crazy.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

While conceding that violence existed in years past, some older people argued that it had been more likely to take the form of the `square go', rarely involving innocent bystanders or the use of weapons. The following reminiscence, in which Glasgow gangs pause their fighting to let a couple pass, captures this perfectly.

*You could walk through a gang fight through the Gorbals. We didn't even know we were in the Gorbals - my husband and I went right through it. The guy said, `Hey wait a minute Shuggie! I'll knock your head in in a wee minute - stop the now, here's a couple coming'. We walked right through that. And I was terrified.

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

Whether or not this account is actually true is not, ultimately, that important - what matters is the contrast that is set up between a more ordered and predictable world, in which even the violence was governed by rules, and the perceived randomness and viciousness of current crime.

Given this perception of an increasingly violent society, it is perhaps not surprising that members of the public greatly over-estimate the relative incidence of violent crime. When asked to guess the proportion of crimes recorded by the police that involve violence or the threat of violence - the correct answer to which was 6% in 2000 - the average response was 54%, with just one in every fifty respondents putting the figure at below 10%. There was a slight class effect here, with those in group AB tending to offer lower estimates than those in groups C1C2 and DE - though even the average estimate by those in group AB (45%) was greatly higher than the actual figure.

Figure 2-5: Estimates of the proportion of police-recorded crime involving violence or the threat of violence (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

It seems reasonable to assume that, if the public thinks that violence accounts for such a large proportion of police-recorded crime, they are likely to see the work of the courts as similarly dominated by this type of offence. This is worth bearing in mind as we move on to consider attitudes towards the courts and sentencing in the following chapters.

2.2.2 `Some pensioner took a beating because some druggie wanted a hit': Drug-related crime

When the focus groups were asked why they thought crime was rising, nearly all identified drug misuse - and, more specifically, heroin misuse - as a major factor. Sometimes this was seen as leading to the kind of random violence described above, since `junkies' were viewed as unpredictable and desperate, and without moral qualms about `mugging old ladies' or engaging in other forms of extreme violence. More commonly, however, it was seen as driving acquisitive crime, such as housebreaking, shoplifting and theft from cars, because of addicts' need to feed their habit.

*Sitting in Glasgow Sheriff [Court]. If you are sitting there, nine times out of ten, people are up there for theft and it's all drugs related.

*I was up at Greenhills the other day and one of the boys I know from up there came out of Kwik-Save with three bottles of [stolen] vodka and he was saying, "£5 for a bottle". Three guesses what he wanted the money for.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

*They are taking the money for drugs. House-breaking is up as well because of the drugs.

[...]

*It is on the news every night, someone's been mugged, or in the papers. Some pensioner took a beating because some druggie is wanting a hit.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

Even those with a record of offending felt that drugs were changing the character of the crimes committed; that `good, honest crime' or disorder was giving way to something less palatable.

*Right up until I was 16, I used to go and steal motors every weekend with my pals. Walking down to another scheme, shouting the odds. When I look at them now, they are all junkies. They steal and make money and then buy their drugs.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

The area of drug-related offending was one of many in which important tensions and contradictions emerged, both across the qualitative sample as a whole and within individual groups. Whereas `junkies' and addicts were often denigrated (one young man referred to them, for example, as `scum'), there was also often considerable sympathy for them - especially, and perhaps surprisingly, among older people - as users themselves were seen as victims of heroin and of the `drug barons' that control the drugs trade. We return to this theme in the discussions that follow later in the report about appropriate sentencing for such offenders (see Section 5.4).

2.2.3 `When you see four or five teenagers together, I panic': Young people and disorder

While the issues of violent and drug-related crime were often to the fore in discussions about changes in the volume and character of crime, a third very common theme was that of young people and street disorder. The view that young people are increasingly `out of control', and that they lack discipline or respect for authority, is very widespread - even among people who are themselves relatively young.

*I think the age of criminals is coming down as well. It's frightening how young some of them are.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

It is worth noting, however, that much of the `crime' talked about in relation to young people is relatively mundane, ranging from shoplifting and vandalism to sub-criminal `incivilities', such as hanging around in gangs and being noisy and abusive. This may go some way towards explaining the difference between public and official constructions of the `crime problem' - while such incidents may not even be reported to the police, they may contribute to a perception of spreading social disorder. This may be especially true for older people for whom the young can seem uniquely alien and threatening. This sense of insecurity and threat conjured up by young people is captured clearly in the following extracts.

*I think society has changed. I think we have a more demanding younger society. Their expectation is that they ought to have things whether they work for them or not. I think there is an expectation that they should have certain things and if they can't get them one way, they don't hesitate to claim them in another. I think home burglary and mugging is probably what I see as more common. And just violence from kids. You get a mob of kids running around and you are just aware of them around you. Are they coming near me? Is my handbag tucked in safely?

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

*When you see four or five teenagers together, I panic.

(Females, 45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

Interestingly, when people are asked to think about the role of sentencing in controlling crime, discussion invariably strays back to the issue of young people and what might be done to prevent crime in the first place, with calls for better parenting and increased discipline within schools featuring as common refrains.

2.3 `Nothing has changed': Counter views

We have seen from the survey evidence that a clear majority of the Scottish public think that crime is increasing and that much of it is violent in character. It would, however, be wrong to assume that such views are entirely dominant. A range of alternative interpretations of the crime problem also emerged in the course of the focus groups, often prompted by presenting participants with information about `actual' crime rates. Among the most important of these were the following.

Some older people recognised that their heightened anxiety about crime might reflect changes in themselves as much as in society as a whole.

*I certainly wasn't so frightened twenty years ago, personally. I don't know why I am frightened now.

*It could be that you are older and feeling more vulnerable.

*You can't hurry down the road the same as you used to.

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

Others questioned whether things were really now so much worse than in the past, or argued that sensationalist media coverage distorts our view of crime. This was felt to be particularly true in relation to sexual and violent offending.

*When we were growing up we were considered the same - it is an age thing I am sure it is. Nothing has changed. The teenagers now have got nothing to do. Nothing has changed.

(Females, 45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

*My Mum and Dad said, 'These things never happened in my day' but the fact is they did happen but, either they weren't spoken about or you just didn't get to hear about them. Not everyone had a television. Just the way of reporting crime as well is totally different from those days.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

Younger people, in general, appeared more sceptical about talk of crime waves and of a general increase in the risk of victimisation. Several felt that Scotland was actually a comparatively low crime rate society and contrasted in favourably with other parts of the UK.

*It [crime] is quite steady actually. If anything, I think it might have gone down slightly. [...] I don't see nearly as much graffiti on the walls as maybe ten years ago.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

2.4 Key points

This chapter has looked at the way that people talk and feel about crime and at how much they know about the topic. It has revealed a number of important insights in terms of understanding the way that people respond to discussions about how we deal with offenders.

· In general, people's level of interest in issues of crime and justice outstrips their actual knowledge.

· Two widespread misconceptions of obvious relevance to public perceptions of sentencing are that, first, crime is increasing and, secondly, that it is increasingly violent and random in character. This is not, perhaps, the place to speculate about why public perceptions of crime bear so little relation to `official' constructions of the crime problem - but it is important to be aware of this divergence in seeking to understand attitudes towards sentencing and imprisonment.

· Across discussions with all age groups, one of the major factors felt to be driving both violent and acquisitive crime was drug misuse or, more specifically, heroin addiction. While there was widespread antipathy towards `junkies' or addicts, they were also often seen as victims in their own right - a perspective with clear implications for views of appropriate sentencing.

· Much of the `crime' which concerns people is committed by young people, not `hardened criminals', and is relatively mundane in character. Nevertheless, these incidents of `incivility' contribute to a discourse of social breakdown and to a feeling of generalised insecurity, especially among older people. This, too, undoubtedly informs public attitudes towards the workings of the criminal justice system.

3 Views and knowledge of the criminal justice system

We saw in the previous chapter that, although people are interested in crime, they tend to say that they know relatively little about it. We also saw that there is widespread view that crime is rising in Scotland; that it is increasingly violent in character; and that there are particular problems associated with young people and drug offenders.

In this chapter, we turn from knowledge and opinions of crime itself to the criminal justice system. How much do people know and what do they think about the workings of the criminal justice system in Scotland? Are the courts seen as overly lenient, or is there greater support for Sheriffs and Judges than the media might lead us to believe?

3.1 Knowledge about the criminal justice system

We saw above that, despite the high level of interest in crime and law and order issues, people did not feel that they knew much about `how much crime there is in Scotland'. Similarly, respondents did not feel they knew much about 'what happens to people when they appear before the courts in Scotland', six in ten (61%) saying they did not know very much and a further 9% that they knew 'nothing at all' about this. Again, it is important to bear this in mind when reading the findings presented in this chapter as the majority of respondents will be commenting on issues about which they admit they have only limited knowledge.

Figure 3-1: How much know about what happens to people when they appear before the courts in Scotland (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

3.2 Views of the judiciary

While it may be the case that steps are being taken to `modernise' the judiciary in Scotland, it appears that the public is either unaware of or unimpressed by such developments. When survey respondents were asked whether they felt judges and sheriffs were generally in touch or out of touch with what ordinary people think, roughly eight out of ten felt the latter, with just 17% claiming the judiciary was `in touch'. There is a strong socio-economic dimension here, with those in groups C1C2 and DE much more likely to see the judiciary as `out of touch' than those in the professional grouping, AB.

Figure 3-2 Whether Judges and Sheriffs in Scotland are generally in touch or out of touch with what ordinary people think, by socio-economic group (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

This widespread perception of judges and sheriffs as removed from everyday life was also evident in the focus groups, in which the age and social background of the bench was frequently commented on.

*The judges are dishing out sentences and whatnot and I can guarantee that there is no judge or sheriff ever sat a day in the jail.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

*I think a lot of the times some of the judges, I suppose sheriffs as well, some of them are so old that they've lost touch with reality.

[...]

*The judges should be retired off at 65. It should be a younger judge, somebody who is up to date with everything that's happening.

*Is it when you reach 75 or something like that you've got to re-sit your driving test? These guys should be taken in by a panel of younger judges and asked questions. Every mistake he makes falls back on them as well. He should be assessed by younger judges to see if he's still up scratch on what's going on.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

3.3 Issues of system effectiveness

The performance of sentencers apart, the Scottish courts were seen as afflicted by a number of other problems. First, and most generally, some focus group participants felt that the courts simply no longer had sufficient authority to influence or discipline offenders effectively.

*I think a lot has to be reflected back to the judicial system itself. I think the sentencers and the lawyers and advocates etc. don't have the power that they had years ago. Maybe they have been curbed, I don't know what their set up is [...] When I was young if you were dragged to court, when you were fifteen or whatever, it was a big deal, the whole street knew about this. Nowadays the court doesn't seem to have the power or effect or the standing that it should have in the community.

(Males, 60 plus, C2DE, Glasgow)

Secondly, it was widely felt that, through `clever lawyers', if not actual corruption, guilty people often walked free. Sometimes this was framed in class terms - as `one law for the rich, another for the poor' - and sometimes in terms of the `big criminals' who knew how to `play the system'. Related to this was a frustration at people being freed `on technicalities'.

*I think there is definitely a lack of confidence with Joe Public for the system. [...] I saw a case recently where there was a murder and the participants know they committed murder but because of the application of the rules, they are off because of the method the advocate used [...]. They walked out, the three of them.

[...]

*We have a system of very clever defending lawyers. A lot more clever than the prosecution lawyers are. It appears to me that the guys that go in have experience of maybe ten years. An advocate doesn't come to the floor until he is well into his forties. I am not naming anyone but one of the top men in Scotland, [advocate's name], he will get most murderers off by manipulation of the rules that are laid down.

(Males, 60 plus, C2DE, Glasgow)

*There is still a law for them and a law for us so to speak. [...] If we were royalty or that and just speeding ...

*Talking about royalty, you've got this lord who's up just now - is it a lord? He's up for speeding twice?

* One hundred -odd miles [per hour], it was in the paper this week.

*Twice he got caught.

*One hundred-odd miles [per hour] you lose your licence automatically, don't you?

*Because he was caught the second time.

*He still hasn't lost his licence.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*Another thing is if you're an out and out crook, drug dealer, whatever, and you've got bags of cash, you can afford the best lawyers in the world, not just Joe Soap who earns so much money, you get help from nobody. You either pay it yourself, you know what I mean, you've got nobody.

[...]

*I think that the working class people should have more access to Legal Aid instead of all these guys. These guys have got bags of money they've stolen from the public anyway.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

All of this feeds into a third theme - the perception that the balance of justice has swung too far towards the offender and away from the victim. This was often framed in terms of the dangers of being prosecuted for acting in self-defence, with the case of Tony Martin (the farmer jailed in England for killing a burglar) a frequent reference point.

*It has changed that much. If you get anyone damage your property now and you try and do anything about it, even defend yourself, the police don't take your side, they take the criminals side and you get done for it.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

But it was also widely felt that the justice system itself has become hamstrung by the need to respect the rights of the accused, with the result that it has become increasingly difficult to secure convictions.

*That's the human rights for them. What about the poor punter who is going along the road and somebody mugs him? Where's their human rights?

*They're not interested in that. They're just interested in the ones in prison.

*The guy goes out and buys a nice car, somebody vandalises it. He goes out and kicks the shit out them, he's in jail. That's the guy who gets the jail. What happens to the vandals? A pat on the head and they say, 'Be a good boy. Off you go'.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

3.4 Issues of fairness versus consistency

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given its centrality to debates around sentencing in general, the issue of consistency versus fairness or discretion also came up repeatedly in the course of the focus groups. In general, the Scottish courts were criticised for their perceived lack of consistency. Occasionally, this was framed explicitly in terms of the absence of sentencing guidelines. More commonly, it was seen as the result of poorly trained or out-of-touch sentencers.

*You have one judge who might sentence somebody to six years for rape or manslaughter or whatever and then somebody else commits what you think is a lesser crime and they get ten years or something. They don't seem to be discussing anything with each other.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

*There should be some sort of guidelines. You can't have all black and white. You've got to have some grey areas and give a bit of discretion here and there. You can't have hard and fast rules [but] there should be guidelines somewhere. The same with the Health and Safety at Work Act, there are no actual laws but there are loads of guidelines. White papers, this, that and the next thing. They should do the same with the justice system.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*You get the 16 or 17 year-olds that do it all the time (who) get a fine and (are) chucked out the door and the other ones that have done it for the first time (who) get hammered. [...] Some of them are out of touch these days, there should be guidelines that they should have to follow.

(Females, 45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

Interestingly, there was a demand for greater consistency even among those who had appeared before the courts as accused. In such cases, the argument tended to be that, once charged, it should not be `the luck of the draw' what sentence one gets but be clearly driven by a combination of the nature of the offence and one's past record.

*At the end of the day the courts are a waste of time - it is a lucky draw. I got put up for carrying a knife, I got a £300 fine and I got told that the next time I was in front of the court then I would be going to the jail. I was at the pub that night and I got lifted with a broken bottle in my pocket and I got a £100 fine! Yet you can get some people that are up for something and they get jail. It is so biased up the courts for women. I saw a lassie up there the other day and my heart was breaking for her. She was up for a shoplifting offence and she had four weans, first offence and the sheriff sent her down as if she was a piece of shit She was bursting out crying and telling people to look after her weans and everything, you were like, you are sending down the wrong people here.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

Again, however, it would be wrong to assume that public attitudes towards sentencing are undifferentiated. Occasionally, the case was put for discretion, or `treating each case on its merits', ahead of consistency. This was usually framed in terms of understanding the circumstances of the offender and reasons for the offence. As we will see later (see Section 4.2), people thought this could be particularly important in relation to those whose offending was motivated by drug dependency.

* Sometimes people are just basically put in the wrong place for what they have done. It could be their first offence and they get this big whacking ...

*The mother is shoplifting because she can't afford to feed her kids.

*Yes, something like that. They are not looking at the whole picture. They are just tarring everyone with the same brush.

*INTERVIEWER: What is the problem there - that they are applying the rules too rigidly? Is that what you mean?

*Yes. It should be that they look at the whole picture rather than just a part of the picture.

*INTERVIEWER: The circumstances?

*Yes, the circumstances behind what happened. There are reasons.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

*I would rather go up in front of a social worker and let them sentence me because the judge doesn't know me. They only get a wee brief report in front of them.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

3.5 Overall views of current sentencing practice

When survey respondents were asked outright whether they considered the sentences handed down by the Scottish courts to be too tough, too lenient or about right, the results were unequivocal - just 3% thought that current sentencing was too tough, while 32% thought it was `a little too lenient' and a further 38% that it was `much too lenient'.

Figure 3-3 shows the by now familiar variations across the different age groups though, even among younger respondents, only very small proportions believed sentencing to be too tough.

Figure 3-3: Whether the Scottish courts are too tough, too lenient or about right, by age group (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

In relation to socio-economic group, the same pattern we have seen before was evident, with those in the lower socio-economic groups being most likely to view sentencing as overly lenient. Among those in group AB, significantly more people saw current sentencing as `about right', though still only a few felt that it was `too tough'.

Figure 3-4: Whether the Scottish courts are too tough, too lenient or about right, by socio-economic group (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

As we shall see in the following chapter, however, this apparently committed punitive position is less robust than it appears - at least once discussion moves away from talking about `the courts' in general to a consideration of what should be done in relation to specific cases.

3.6 Key points

In this chapter, we have examined broad public attitudes towards the courts and current sentencing practice.

· The evidence from both the survey and the focus groups suggests a lack of public knowledge, but also a lack of public confidence, in the way that the Scottish courts deal with offenders.

· This is partly focused on the Judiciary, who are still seen as `out-of-touch' with ordinary people and as erratic and inconsistent in their judgements. But it also reflects a concern with system effectiveness - relating, for example, to a perception that the court no longer has the necessary moral authority to deter offenders, the possibilities for the accused to `play the system' and the suggestion that justice is more interested in the rights of the offender than those of the accused.

· There is also a persistent concern about inconsistency in sentencing - though this is balanced, to some extent, by a belief in the importance of discretion and `treating each case on its merits'.

· There is little question that the vast majority of the Scottish public see current sentencing practice as too lenient - though, as we shall see from the following chapter, this may reflect received wisdom more than a strongly-committed belief.

4 Sentencing decisions

This chapter aims to do three things: to look at how much the public actually knows about the various disposals available to the courts; to consider their responses when asked to arrive at appropriate sentences for actual cases; and to examine their attitudes towards the implicit and explicit aims of sentencing.

4.1 Awareness of different sentencing options

When asked how much they felt they knew about `the range of sentences that are available to Scottish courts', just one person in 100 said they knew `a lot', while eight out of ten said they knew `not very much' or `nothing at all'.

Figure 4-1: How much know about the range of sentences that are available to Scottish courts (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

This was borne out when respondents were asked if they could name any of the sentencing options open to the courts in Scotland, apart from sending people to prison or fining them. This exercise was initially unprompted, but was followed up by the interviewer showing a list of available sentencing options and checking which others respondents had heard of. The results are shown below in Table 4-1.

Table 4-1: Awareness of sentencing options (%)

 

First mention

Any spontaneous mention

Any mention - spontaneous/ prompted

Community Service Order

62

72

95

Probation

8

24

92

Electronic tagging

3

12

83

Deferred sentence

2

10

79

Absolute discharge

0

1

53

Drug treatment and testing order

1

3

49

Compensation order

2

4

47

Base: All respondents (n= 720)

It is striking that the only one of these disposals mentioned spontaneously by a significant number of respondents is the Community Service Order and that only probation, electronic tagging and the deferred sentence were mentioned by more than one person in ten. Levels of spontaneous awareness of compensation orders, drug treatment and testing orders and absolute discharge are very low - though greater numbers of respondents at least recognise the names of these disposals when prompted.

From the focus groups, it appears that not only have large numbers of people heard of community service, but that there is a widespread perception that it is a very commonly-used disposal. In fact, Community Service Orders accounted for just 6% of disposals in the Scottish Courts in 2000 - a figure that greatly surprised many participants. We return to their views of community service in the following chapter (see Section 5.6.1).

It is also interesting to note that electronic tagging is the third most commonly-mentioned disposal, despite the fact that it is still relatively uncommon. This suggests that public awareness of sentencing options is largely based on information from the media, which has given considerable attention to the use of electronic tagging in recent years.

Overall, then, the public seems to have a relatively limited awareness of the non-custodial options open to the courts. Again, this is a potentially important contextual factor in seeking to understand their views of current sentencing practice.

4.2 Views on appropriate sentencing for specific cases

As part of the survey interview, respondents were asked to consider appropriate sentences for two specific scenarios - one relating to theft by housebreaking, the other to assault and robbery. Each was split into two parts: the first gave a brief description of the actual offence while the second provided some background details about the characteristics and circumstances of the offender. Respondents were asked what they thought should happen to the offender, based on both the initial and the fuller version of the scenario, from a list of disposals currently available to the Scottish courts.7 The same scenarios were also discussed during several of the focus groups.

4.2.1 Scenario one

Part one - An 18 year old, John, plead guilty to theft by housebreaking. Walking past a flat at 2.00am, he noticed an open window, entered the property and took a video recorder worth £200. The householder had heard a noise and called the police who apprehended John shortly afterwards. He had no previous convictions.

Part two - The video was recovered. A background report requested by the court indicated that John had a drug habit which he wanted to seek help with. He got £67 in benefits per fortnight.

The following table shows what members of the public thought should happen to John, based on both the initial information about the offence and on the fuller version of the scenario.

Figure 4-2 Public views of what should happen to John, based on partial and fuller information (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

Note: Multiple responses allowed

graph

Several points are worth highlighting about these responses.

First, despite criticisms of the justice system for its leniency, there was little enthusiasm for a custodial sentence, with just one person in five at each stage thinking this was appropriate. Those in the older age groups and lower socio-economic groups were more likely to believe that imprisonment was appropriate. Where a prison sentence was thought appropriate, respondents tended to believe John should spend less than a year in prison.8

Secondly, based on the limited version of the scenario, the largest single group opted for a community service order, followed by compensation and a fine. Once the second part of the scenario was introduced, however, there was a huge surge in the number of people opting for a drug treatment and testing order, despite the fact that, as we saw above, there was a relatively low level of awareness of this sentencing option. Interestingly, this seemed to be viewed as an alternative to other community disposals, rather than to imprisonment.

In the focus groups, the most common arguments advanced for a non-custodial approach were that John was a first-time offender; that he had a drug habit; and that there was evidence that he actively wished to address his drug problems. There was strong feeling that John should be helped to deal with his drug problems and that if this was not addressed, he would, most likely, re-offend.

The responses at both stages are broadly in line with the type of sentence John would actually have been likely to receive from the Scottish courts.9 So, despite views that, in general, judges are out of touch and hand down sentences that are too lenient, in this case, sentencing practice does not appear to be significantly out-of-step with public views of appropriate disposals.

Indeed, when we look at what respondents thought would actually happen to John if this were a real case, their thoughts on the most appropriate way of dealing with John (shown in Figure 4-3 as 'What would give') and their views of what would actually happen to him if this were a real case (shown in Figure 4-3 as 'What would get') were often similar, notably in relation to fining John and placing him on

probation. There were, however, some differences. For example, half of respondents thought that John should be subject to a drug treatment and testing order but only a quarter thought this would actually be imposed by the courts if this were a real case. Twenty per cent would have sent John to prison but only 10% thought this would actually happen.

Figure 4-3 Public views of what should happen to John based on fuller information and what would actually happen to him if this were a real case (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

Note: Multiple responses allowed

graph

4.2.2 Scenario two

Part one - A 19 year-old, Ronnie, plead guilty to assault and robbery. Ronnie had grabbed a 21 year-old man who was walking home at midnight, forced him against a wall, punched him on the head and demanded his wallet. The victim handed over his wallet and Ronnie ran away. The wallet contained £50 cash, which was not recovered. Ronnie has several previous convictions for breach of the peace and assault.

Part two - He had served one sentence of probation, which he breached, and one six month sentence of detention. He had not had work since leaving school at 16, lived with his parents and got £42 in benefits per fortnight. A background report indicated that Ronnie led an irregular lifestyle involving abuse of alcohol and drugs.

In this second case, there was overwhelming support for a prison sentence at both stages, though there was a slight drop at the second stage. In the focus groups, respondents explained this decision by reference to the fact that the offence involved violence and that Ronnie was a repeat offender. The possibly premeditated character of the offence was also seen as an aggravating factor and was contrasted with `opportunism' of John's offence.

*I think John was an opportunist. I don't think John would have thought about violence. He has seen an open window and he needed to buy drugs and he just went for it. Whereas this guy has gone out of his way to physically attack somebody.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

In line with the more punitive approach to this case, a longer prison term was thought appropriate for Ronnie's case than had been suggested for John. Of those who, based on the initial information, thought he should be sent to prison, only 20% thought that this should be for a year or less, while a third (32%) thought Ronnie should spend between one and two years in prison and a further third (33%) between two and five years. Twelve per cent thought that Ronnie should spend five years or more in prison. As one might expect, the additional information about Ronnie's case, revealing his previous criminal record and chaotic lifestyle, led people to believe that an even longer prison term was appropriate. Both on the basis of the initial and fuller information, those in the older age groups and the lower socio-economic groups were more likely to think Ronnie should spend longer in prison.

Interestingly, however, there was again a very high level of support for the use of a drug treatment and testing order - based on a strong feeling that, to break his cycle of offending, Ronnie needed to be helped to overcome his drug problems. While participants felt that John could be helped to overcome his problems while still in the community, the nature of Ronnie's offence meant that help would have to be provided for him while in custody.

There was little enthusiasm for any other disposal, with the exception of making Ronnie pay compensation to his victim.

Figure 4-4 Public views of what should happen to Ronnie, based on partial and fuller information (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

Note: Multiple responses allowed

graph

Again, the majority of respondents opted for a sentence which was reasonably similar to that which Ronnie would have been likely to actually get. The charge of assault and robbery is a serious one, although it is, to some extent, mitigated by the fact that no weapon was used during the attack. However, Ronnie's previous criminal record and negative background report would suggest that he would be almost certain to receive a custodial sentence of at least a year.

When respondents were asked what they thought would happen to Ronnie if this were a real case that came before the Scottish courts, again, opinions about how he should be dealt with ('What would give') and how he actually would be dealt with ('What would get') were not significantly out-of-step. That said, it is worthwhile noting that smaller proportions thought that Ronnie would actually be sent to prison and be subject to a drug treatment and testing order.

Figure 4-5: Public views of what should happen to Ronnie based on fuller information and what would actually happen to him if this were a real case (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

Note: Multiple responses allowed

graph

4.3 General views of the aims and effects of sentencing

We have seen the types of sentence that members of the public think appropriate for two specific types of case. But what is it that people hope that such disposals will achieve, and how confident are they that sentencing has the desired effect?

Using John's case as an example, those who took part in the survey were asked to consider a range of possible aims in sentencing and to indicate how important they thought each was. The results, shown in Table 4-2, suggest that the public is more interested in pursuing rehabilitative or reparative goals through sentencing than in incapacitation or simple retribution. 'Changing John's attitudes and behaviour so he is less likely to commit more crime' and 'making amends to the victim for the harm done' were seen as the most important goals.

Table 4-2: How important each of the following should be in sentencing John (%)

 

Extremely important

Very important

Fairly important

Not very important

Not at all important

Don't know

Changing John's attitudes and behaviour so he is less likely to commit more crime

49

43

5

2

1

0

Making amends to the victim for the harm done

34

42

20

4

0

0

Showing that the public disapproves of John's crime

30

48

16

4

2

0

Scaring John so he won't do it again

34

36

17

9

4

0

Scaring other people so they won't commit the same crime as John

24

35

22

14

3

1

Making it difficult for John to commit more crimes (for example by imprisoning him)

20

37

22

17

3

1

Punishing John simply because he deserves it

13

30

33

19

5

1

Base: All respondent (n=720)

Note: Table presents row percentages

We saw above in relation to sentencing scenarios that older respondents and those in the lower socio-economic groups were more likely to think that prison was the appropriate way to deal with each case. It is perhaps, then, unsurprising that these groups also thought that punishment was a relatively more important goal in sentencing John. The extent to which people actually view prison as punishing offenders is returned to below (see Section 5.3).

With the exception of rehabilitation, respondents in the lower socio-economic groups were more likely to rate each sentencing goal as being more important. The greatest difference was in relation to individual deterrence, or 'scaring John so he won't do it again', where 39% of those in socio-economic group DE believed this to be extremely important compared to 22% of those in socio-economic group AB. With the exception of expressing society's disapproval, where those in the older age groups were more likely to rate this as important, there was no strong age effect across the other sentencing goals.

The exercise, then, adds to the evidence that public views on sentencing are more complicated than they may at first appear and that - at least for certain types of crime - there is a reasonable level of support for rehabilitative or reparative objectives. Of course, the crime committed by John was a relatively minor one and did not involve violence. The aims of retribution or incapacitation might well feature more prominently in relation to a sex offender, for example. It needs to be remembered though - and this is something that, as we saw earlier, the public does not necessarily understand - that the Scottish courts deal with far more cases like John's than Ronnie's.

The complexity of public views is illustrated further by responses to a series of attitude statements relating to the effectiveness of sentencing.

Table 4-3: Attitudes towards sentencing (%)

 

Strongly agree

Agree

Neither/ nor

Disagree

Strongly disagree

Don't know

The tougher the sentence, the less likely an offender is to commit more crime

16

39

13

28

3

0

Victims should have a say in the type of sentence an offender receives

21

28

12

30

7

1

Most offenders can be helped to change their attitudes and behaviour

4

39

22

29

4

2

If offenders knew more about their victims they would be less likely to commit more crime

7

33

18

36

7

1

Prisoners should be given time off their sentence for good behaviour

2

32

11

41

13

1

Base: All respondent (n=720)

Note: Table presents row percentages

For none of the statements shown was there a clear consensus, but several points are worth highlighting.

First, although changing John's attitudes and behaviour so he was less likely to commit more crimes was seen as of paramount importance, there was not a strong feeling that this could necessarily be achieved, with only 43% agreeing that most offenders can be helped to change their attitudes and behaviour and 33% disagreeing.

Second, despite calls for tougher sentencing, people are not necessarily convinced that this is the best way to prevent re-offending. Fifty-five per cent of people agreed that 'the tougher the sentence, the less likely an offender is to commit more crime', while 31% disagreed.

Third, despite feelings that the balance has swung away from the victim and too much focus is now placed on the offender and their needs, there was not majority support for greater involvement of victims in the sentencing process, with 49% agreeing 'victims should have a say in the type of sentence an offender receives' and 37% disagreeing.

Fourth, there was a limited feeling that offenders knowing more about the effects of crimes on their victims would make them less likely to commit more crime, 40% agreeing with this and 41% disagreeing. This is interesting given the current emphasis on alternative dispute resolution and, in particular, mediation schemes. We return to this issue below (see Section 5.6.3).

Finally, there was little support for the idea that prisoners should be given time off their sentence for good behaviour. This links to demands for truth in sentencing, which we return to later in this chapter (see Section 4.4.6).

4.4 Themes in public discussion about sentencing

In the remainder of this chapter, we use some of the material from the focus groups to illustrate further the way in which people talk and think about how sentencing decisions should be made.

4.4.1 `Has he got previous?': attitudes towards first-time and repeat offenders

We noted in relation to John's case that there was little enthusiasm for a custodial sentence, primarily because he was a first-time offender. This has its limits, of course - as one person pointed out, `the Lockerbie bomber was probably a first offender, too' - but for relatively minor crimes (and especially crimes against property), there was a general expectation that first-time offenders should be treated differently.

This position tends to draw on two related sets of arguments. The first draws on notions of fairness and reflects a widespread and deep-rooted view that `we all make mistakes' and `you have to give people a second chance'. The second is based on a concern that severe punishment (notably imprisonment) may create a greater problem than it is being used to tackle - in other words, that through its direct or indirect effects, it may actually make first-time offenders more likely to re-offend. We return to this below.

But if there is a widely-held view that first-time offenders should be treated more leniently, the converse is also true: there is a general expectation that repeat offenders should be dealt with severely.

*Rehabilitation should be offered, if they don't accept that then send them down. Something like that.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

4.4.2 Deterring offenders

It is clear from both the survey and the focus groups that there is a general expectation that sentencing should `work' in the sense of impacting on the amount of crime committed. How, then, do people expect this to happen - through deterrence, rehabilitation or incapacitation?

Discussion about deterrence was, typically, framed in terms of the effects of the sentence on the individual rather than on the general population. Indeed, the survey findings suggested that individual deterrence was seen as the more important. There were, however, some exceptions to this - particularly among the older age groups, where the idea of exemplary sentencing won some support. The historical accuracy of the following account is, again, less important than the argument it is being used to convey.

*The justice system here should start making examples. You are getting five years for doing that. Mind when we used to have the razor gangs, mind, in Glasgow? The judge turned round and said 'Seven years'. It stopped like that. One of them got seven years, by Christ, there was no more of that after that.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

Discussion about individual deterrence was closely related to the issue of first-time and repeat offenders. There was a widespread view that first-time offenders would be more likely to respond to sentencing, of whatever kind, and that the entire experience of prosecution and punishment might `jolt' or `shock' them into a realisation of their need to change. Repeat offenders, by definition, were viewed as cynical and `hardened' to the whole process and so as unlikely to be deterred from further offending. This tended to lead to calls for much harsher sentences, either as means of finally `getting the message across' or simply to remove the offender from circulation. This raises the general issue of incapacitation.

4.4.3 `Take them out of society': arguments for incapacitation

Although not the dominant theme in the way that people talk about sentencing and what it should achieve, the idea of incapacitation was present in some of the focus group discussions - sometimes in an extreme form (approving comments, for example, about the practice of cutting off the hands of thieves in some Islamic countries) but more commonly in relation to the length of sentence for violent, sexual or repeat offenders.

*If someone stays in prison for a week or for a month to frighten them, to be told if they do that again they are going back for a year or whatever and they go out and do it again, then that person can't be helped and should be locked up. There is no way you are going to rehabilitate that person. Take them out of society.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

This view that there comes a point `when you throw away the key' was often linked to some awareness of American sentencing practice and the notion of `three strikes and you're out'.

4.4.4 `They might come out a better person': perspectives on rehabilitation

Taken in its broadest sense, there was a high degree of support for rehabilitation and a belief that offenders can - or should - be encouraged to `change their ways'. Indeed, as we saw above, respondents to the survey rated this as being the most important goal in sentencing John. It is clear, however, that people see this as likely to be brought about by a range of different approaches. Some, for example, equated rehabilitation with offenders realising the effect of their crimes, and so favoured approaches such as reparation, mediation or counselling; others viewed it in terms of giving them the education, skills or confidence to pursue non-criminal careers, as instilling a sense of `discipline' through `boot camp' punishment, or as resulting straightforwardly from the experience of physical work.

Underlying reasons for supporting the idea of rehabilitation also varied. While some participants felt that we owe individuals the chance to demonstrate that they can change and to overcome the circumstances that may have propelled them into offending, others took a more pragmatic or instrumental view, relating the argument for rehabilitation to `the good of society' or the need to use tax-payers' money constructively.

* I think there does need to be education along with the reprimand. I think the two must definitely go together. You can't just lock people up. That I don't agree with at all.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

* They've found, for instance, some of those that were stealing cars, they made excellent mechanics when they got a chance to have classes, etc. There has got to be more thought. You don't want to just shove somebody in a cell and lock the door. You are not achieving a thing. You are wasting tax payer's money.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

*You are locked up most of the time. Most of the time a prisoner is kept locked in his cell except to go and get exercise. Unfortunately in our society, we don't have the workforce. They are kept locked up in their cell for eight hours or whatever it is and it is not doing the prisoner any good or society any good. If they could teach them something, maybe a job or something useful, teach them something they might come out a better person but I don't think locking them up all the time is the answer.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

Though many people felt that prisons should be used to rehabilitate, rather than just punish or `store' offenders, there was little confidence that this actually happens or is likely to happen. These themes are returned to in Section 5.

4.4.5 Views on how we should deal with drug offenders

We saw in Section 2 that drug misuse is widely viewed as driving a great deal of offending in Scotland. Moreover, responses to the scenarios outlined earlier in this chapter suggested that there was considerable support for the use of drug treatment and testing orders. What other views were expressed about the way in which we currently, or should, deal with drug offenders?

The first point to make here is that a very clear distinction was drawn in most groups between drug dealers and drug users who commit crime to pay for their addiction. We will see below that this was also apparent from the survey findings. Drug dealers and, in particular, those seen as controlling the drug economy (often referred to in the groups as `drug barons') tended to fall into the same category as murderers, rapists and paedophiles - that is, as among the most serious offenders and as deserving of especially harsh sentencing.

In general, there was a more sympathetic approach to drug-using offenders, stemming from a view that their behaviour is driven by something which, if not actually outside their control, is certainly difficult to control without appropriate support. There was, therefore, strong support for measures which require addicts to seek help and for the provision of dedicated drug-rehabilitation services, both in prison and in the community.

That said, in some of the discussions, there was also scepticism about the way in which drug offenders are able to use their addiction to escape punishment or avoid imprisonment, and about the extent to which heroin addiction, in particular, should be seen as something which lies outside the sphere of individual choice and responsibility - especially given that there are much higher levels of awareness of its effects than there were ten or twenty years ago.

*On the social report, if it says that it is a drug habit I think they should put them into rehabilitation. I can't go up in court and say, 'I am in rehabilitation'. If you go up in court and say you are then you are laughing. You can go up in court and say, `Alright, I had a few drinks, I got in a fight and made a mistake'. [They say] `Fuck you', and give me two years.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

*I don't think we can afford to make excuses any longer. This sort of thing, 'Oh well he's got other circumstances. He's been on heroin'. Nobody told him to take it. We have all been there. People have said, 'Would you like that?' and you've said, 'No'.

*In the sixties, nobody had education about heroin then. We have nowadays. We have a hell of a lot of information.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

Other participants, while supporting the idea of rehabilitation in principle, were despondent about the possibility of achieving real change - either because of a lack of resources, or because they saw individuals' drug problems as too ingrained and resistant to change. The following example is given added weight by the fact that it is based on personal experience.

* My sister is always stealing and shop lifting. She has been up in court umpteen times. It hasn't done her any good. She is 36 now and her whole life is shoplifting and drugs. There's a gang of them though. It hasn't done her any good being in jail. She just gets back out again, stops for a little while, and then back on to the shoplifting again.

*INTERVIEWER: What do you think would help her?

*I haven't got a clue.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

4.4.6 `Five years should mean five years': arguments for truth in sentencing

Turning specifically to views of custodial sentences, the focus groups saw widespread criticism of early release schemes and implicit support for the notion of `truth in sentencing'. Further, we saw above that the survey revealed only limited support for early release for good behaviour. This appears to be based partly on incomprehension - members of the public simply do not understand why somebody who has been sentenced to a year's imprisonment should then be released after six months. There is a sense here that the public is being `conned' or `cheated' - that it is being told something at the time of sentence that is very different from what actually happens.

* That is another thing that annoys me. If they're told they're getting five years, it should be five years and not two and a half years or two years for good behaviour. I think that's ridiculous.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

But there was also occasional unease at the idea of early release `for good behaviour', since participants often felt that good behaviour should be expected and not have to be rewarded. Indeed, some even felt that, if behaviour is to form part of the length of sentence equation, it should be to increase the amount of time spent in prison if offenders do not conform.

*You have been given a sentence. Why should they get a lesser one just for being good whilst you are in prison? I think being good in prison should ensure that you just get that sentence and no more. If you step out of line then it gets increased. A judge has given you that sentence for that crime. What right have the prison to let them out early? They should be keeping them for the full sentence because they have been good while they are there. [...] What is good behaviour? Normal behaviour. If you don't do anything wrong, is that good behaviour?

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

*I think the system is wrong whereby they are given a sentence but that is not necessarily the sentence they serve. I would feel an awful lot happier if...if they didn't take help along the way, that sentence was increased and they said, 'You will improve yourself. You are under lock and key. It is up to you to try to mend your ways and we've provided a programme for you. If you choose not to attend then we will extend your sentence.'

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

In terms of sentence length in general, the United States was often referred to as an example of a system in which prisoners serve the time to which they are sentenced. Often, this was viewed positively - though some participants contrasted the size of the American prison population with its apparent lack of success in dealing with crime.

*That's what I laugh at as well - the prisons here and the courts and everything here. In America if you're sentenced, you are sentenced. It is fifty years and you are in for fifty years. It doesn't matter what you've done. If you've got fifty years you're in for fifty years.

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*If you get a ten year sentence you are out in five. Why not give them twenty years and let them out in ten? In America you get jailed for 99 years. You come up for parole after 50 years in America.

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

The issue of truth in sentencing was explored in the survey by asking respondents how long they thought someone given a twelve month sentence would actually spend in prison and how long they thought they should spend in prison. Almost half (45%) thought that someone would actually spend six months in prison; roughly a quarter (22%) that they would spend less than six months in prison and roughly a third (32%) that they would be in prison for more than six months.

Figure 4-6 How long an offender sentenced to twelve months will actually spend in prison (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

So, overall, two-thirds (67%) thought that an offender sentenced to twelve months would actually spend six months or less in prison. When we look at the views on how long that offender should spend in prison, we can see that only 5% of respondents thought that serving six months or less would be appropriate and the vast majority (85%) thought that a twelve month sentence should mean twelve months spent in prison.

Figure 4-7 How long an offender sentenced to twelve months should spend in prison (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

4.5 Key points

This chapter examined public knowledge and awareness of the sentencing options available to the Scottish courts; looked at views of appropriate sentences for two specific cases; and explored the main themes in discussion about sentencing more generally.

· Members of the public feel that they know - and do actually know - little about the sentencing options available to the courts in Scotland. Most people are unable to name any non-custodial disposals except fines and community service orders. The latter, in particular, are thought by the public to be much more common than they actually are.

· Despite the general perception that the courts are too lenient, for the two scenarios examined as part of the study, members of the public tended to opt for sentences that were broadly in line with those likely to have been imposed.

· There was particular support for the use of drug treatment and testing orders once details about the drug habits of the offenders in the scenarios were made known to participants. Similarly, the focus groups suggest that there is relatively widespread support for treating drug offenders differently and for providing - and compelling them to use - dedicated treatment services.

· More generally, the idea of rehabilitating offenders is viewed positively - though the arguments for doing so vary, as do suggested methods.

· The public quite clearly favours greater `truth in sentencing'. Current arrangements for early release are viewed as difficult to understand or to justify and clearly contribute to a public discourse of cynicism and distrust about the way the criminal justice system operates.

5 Views of prison and alternatives to imprisonment

This chapter looks in greater detail at public views and understanding of imprisonment and its alternatives. It does so by considering the extent of public knowledge about prison and the source of that knowledge; by exploring the main themes in the way that people talk about imprisonment and its effects; and by examining views of a number of specific forms of community penalties - namely, community service orders, fines and reparation and mediation schemes.

5.1 General views and knowledge about prison

The first thing to note about public attitudes towards prison is that, once again, they tend not to be based on detailed knowledge. When survey respondents were asked how much they felt they knew about `Scotland's prison system', just one person in fifty replied that they knew `a lot', while eight in every ten said they knew `not very much' or `nothing at all.

Figure 5-1: How much know about Scotland's prison system (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

Like most aspects of crime and justice - though perhaps even more so - public knowledge about the prison system is clearly based more on media and fictional representations than on personal experience. Several people in the focus groups, in particular, referred to dramas like `Bad Girls' or to documentaries they had seen. That said, the groups did also contain some people who had either spent time in prison themselves or had a close family member or friend who had done so. Not surprisingly, as we shall see, these people often held rather different views.

5.2 Perceptions of life in prison

In general, the research (both the quantitative and qualitative components) suggests that there is a widely-held view that life in Scotland's prisons is increasingly `soft'; that quality of life for inmates is higher than they have a right to expect and, indeed, than that of many people living outside; and that, far from acting as a deterrent, experience of prison life makes some people more, not less, likely to return. To a large extent, such views are based on media accounts and on individual high profile cases, such as that of the boys convicted of killing James Bulger.

*I am saying they are getting their three meals a day in prison, they really don't get punished. Nowadays you hear about the prisons being so good.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

Some alternative views were expressed however. In one discussion, for example, a distinction was drawn between the `gangsters' and `ordinary' criminals, for whom prison was seen as an ordeal.

*The only people who are really looked after in the prisons are the bigger gangsters. The only people who do any of the work in the prisons are the house breakers and people like that.

*INTERVIEWER: So you don't think it is a soft life if you are a smaller criminal?

*If you are one of the top gangsters then it is okay but if you are not then your life is a misery.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

Others were at pains to point out that they did not think that prison should be brutal, but simply that it should lack `home comforts' and be focused on constructive activity.

*I don't want it to be physically hard. They don't need televisions, give them books. Try to get them to educate themselves. They can't read, get somebody to help them to read. Things like that. They don't need televisions. They don't need pool tables. What is the point in that?

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

*I don't think they should have any rights other than basic human rights. Everything else is purely a privilege. The slightest wee thing and they take it away.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

Those who had spent time in prison clearly felt that it was an unpleasant, boring and often brutal environment.

*See when they send you to the jail, you are looking over your shoulder all the time because you are in there with people who are fucking evil.

*All that stuff about a telly and that - it's only some jails. The worst you can go to is the [name of prison] because you are in with 30 guys who you don't know. Some of them will carve you open as soon as you walk in, you have got to take that mentality on. You have got to think that you will get there first.

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

5.3 Does prison work?: views on effectiveness

We have already seen that there is a reasonable level of support, in principle, for the idea of rehabilitation - even if there is disagreement about how that should be brought about. So is prison currently seen by the public as `working' in that sense? The evidence from the research would suggest not. There are three main arguments here. The first is the one already addressed: namely that prison regimes are `too soft' to bring about individual change. The second is that prisons are `schools for crime' and, particularly for young offenders, simply expose people to damaging ideas and influences. The third is that the experience of prison has the effect of brutalising people or otherwise affecting their ability to function in `normal' society.

*I am looking at the statistics here and the second highest is prison and I think we are all genuinely of the same opinion. Prison is not doing what it is supposed to.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

*If it was possible, I wouldn't send them to jail because it is going to make them worse. My brother has just finished a five [year sentence] and he has come out and he is 23. He just came out and he is not scared of anything - he would go out and steal a motor in broad daylight just like that. Any other car thief would be thinking about a time and a place. He has been in the jail since he was 18 and he doesn't care about anything - he has been in the jail that long that he doesn't know

(Males 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

*I don't know where I got this but I have got it in to my head, especially the younger, say somebody who was 19, got three months in prison, he would know more about crime when he came out of prison than when he went in. That's what's wrong. We need to sort that bit out. That is the bit that's all to hell. Somebody who does shoplift is going to learn how to do it better. They do need something else but what they need I'm not 100% on.

[...]

*But within the jail though. There are these people and that's all they get, a pittance. They aren't giving them rehabilitation really. 'Here's something to do. We'll pay you £70 when you've done your four years or whatever'.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*No [prison does not work]. For your armed robbers and your murderers, yes, but for people that have committed a fairly petty crime and you put them in the jail - you are creating a monster.

*You could be put in for not paying your TV licence, you could be packed in for some days with some fucking murderer, a loony. If they are going to put you in they should put you in with poor Jimmy that didn't pay his fine either. I know guys that have been put in and they have been petrified because the guy that they have been put in a cell with has not slept, or he sleeps standing up with his eyes open, if you call that sleeping. So you go in with a guy who has got 15 years and you are only in for two, do you think that guy cares if he gets out, do you think he cares what he does to you?

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about the aims and effects of imprisonment. The results support the views expressed above. For example, half agreed that `life is too soft in Scotland's prisons', although this was outstripped by the proportion agreeing that being put in prison does punish offenders. In terms of effectiveness, prison was not seen as the best way to prevent re-offending and, indeed, was often perceived as nothing more than a 'school for crime'.

Table 5-1: Attitudes to prisons (%)

 

Strongly agree

Agree

Neither/ nor

Disagree

Strongly disagree

Don't know

Prisons are schools for crime

16

52

14

15

0

3

In prison, offenders should receive training to help them find jobs

21

64

5

7

2

1

Prison is the best way of preventing re-offending

6

30

18

37

6

3

Being put in prison punishes offenders

8

59

14

15

3

1

Life is too easy in Scottish prisons

20

30

24

13

2

11

Base: All respondent (n=720)

Note: Table presents row percentages

Throughout, we have seen that there have been strong differences between the different age groups. These differences were also evident in relation to views about prison life. Older respondents, for example, were more likely to believe that prisons are schools for crime and that life is too easy in prison and, consequently, less likely to believe that being put in prison punishes offenders. Despite these views, older people were, however, also more likely to believe that prison is the best way to prevent re-offending. For this group, then, prison would still seem to occupy a central place in their thinking about how to deal with offenders.

The issue of effectiveness (at least in terms of preventing recidivism) was explicitly examined by questioning people's views on reconviction rates. Supporting the finding that people did not necessarily view prison as being the best way to prevent re-offending, respondents did not perceive prison as being significantly more effective than a community penalty in terms of recidivism rates. In each case, on average, respondents thought that roughly 55% of offenders would appear before the courts on a different charge within two years. Interestingly, this perception is a very accurate one and roughly 50% of those who are given a prison sentence or community penalty will appear before the courts on a different charge within two years.

Figure 5-2: Proportion of people given a prison sentence or community penalty who will appear before the courts again on a different charge within two years (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

graph

5.4 Drug offenders and prison

We saw earlier that many people see drug addiction as driving much acquisitive crime. There was little faith among most of the focus group participants, however, that prison `works' for this group of offenders. Two main reasons were advanced for this: first, a perceived lack of rehabilitative services in prisons or support services for drug users returning to the community; and secondly, the widespread availability of drugs within prison. Among those who had spent time in prison, this latter point was seen as not only making it difficult for users to kick the habit, but also as creating new addicts out of people who entered prison `clean'. There was also scepticism among this group about the willingness of the prison authorities to tackle the problem, because of concern about unrest.

*They are locking people up and they are making the habit worse, there is more in the jail than out of it. I have got mates that have went into the jail straight and come out junked up. [...] They came out junked because there is nothing to do in the jail. It is all right for some old pompous fucking arsehole to go, 'There is two years in the jail.' He is not the one that has got to do it. If you are sitting in a cell and you have got two years ahead of you and somebody offers you something, you will take it. You will get through it easier. [...] See if you are sitting in a room and it is not much bigger than this table here when you are sitting in it and you are in it for about 23 hours a day. You would do it.

*Your screws [prisoner officers] have got to let it in because they know that if they don't then they are going to have troubles. They are corrupt, they are all corrupt.

[...]

*Can you imagine 1,500 criminals locked up for 23 hours a day with nothing to do? No drugs?

(Males, 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

*I only did 30 days and I missed Christmas and New Year. I don't take anything like that but see my co-pilot [cellmate], he was sitting smacked up every night and he kept asking me to take some. I said no because I wasn't interested in it, I was looking forward to getting back out to my job and that.

(Males 18-29, C2DE, East Kilbride)

Footnotes

1 See, for example, Hough, M. and Roberts, J. (1998), Attitudes to Punishment: Findings from the British Crime Survey, Home Office Research Study No. 179; Mattinson, J. and Mirrlees-Black, C. (2000) Attitudes to Crime and Criminal Justice: Findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey, Home Office Research Study No. 200.

2 It should be noted that a total of 720 interviews were actually achieved.

3 Police recorded crime fell by 4% between 1995 and 2000, while offences rose by 11%. Over the period 1991-2000, police-recorded crime fell by 26%, while offences rose by 17%. The most recent Scottish Crime Survey suggests a fall of 13% in survey-recorded crimes between 1995 and 1999.

4 See Anderson, S. (1996) Older People, Crime and Crime Prevention Age Concern Scotland: Edinburgh.

5 Socio-economic group AB comprises professional people in management positions. Socio-economic group C1C2 comprises more junior professionals and skilled manual workers. Socio-economic group DE comprises semi-skilled and unskilled workers and those who are dependent on state benefit.

6 Although, as we shall see later, there was also a recognition that this could be a factor of changes in participants themselves (i.e. ageing) as much as changes in society.

7 Respondents could choose these singly, or in combination. In the case of the latter, it was not possible to ensure that the combination chosen is an available sentencing option.

8 It is worth emphasising that respondents were asked how long John should spend in prison as opposed to what length of sentence should be handed down.

9 Although it is impossible to say exactly what sentence John would receive, as he is a young first-time offender, the court would be reluctant to impose a custodial sentence. The offence of breaking into a dwelling house while the respondents are asleep is, however, serious, so a fine is also unlikely. A background report would be requested and it is likely that John would receive a sentence of probation with a condition of drug treatment.

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