Institutional mechanisms for incorporating the public in the development of sentencing policy

Neil Hutton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

54 Downloads (Pure)


The development of sentencing policy has become problematic over the last thirty years or so in most western democracies. There are a number of different but related aspects to this. There is a perception that the public have steadily diminishing confidence in judges as sentencers. Survey evidence from a number of jurisdictions suggests that the public see judges as out of touch and their sentencing as overly lenient. Over the same period, prison populations in the same jurisdictions have risen steadily. In the US this has sometimes been deliberately engineered by politicians through legislation and the manipulation of sentencing guidelines, but in other jurisdictions, for example in the UK, sentencing appears to have become more punitive because judges, exercising their discretion, have sent more people to prison for longer. Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms (1995) has coined the phrase "populist punitiveness" to characterise this transformation. Law and order is at the top of the political agenda and political parties feel obliged to "talk tough" for electoral purposes. There is, however, another side to this story. Research using techniques such as focus groups and deliberative polling, shows that the pubic are not as punitive as survey data suggests. When people are given a case to deal with, provided with background information about criminal justice and allowed to engage in dialogue with each other, they are less punitive and more constructive and rational in their approach to sentencing (Hutton 2005). Under the conditions of a deliberative poll: accurate information, open debate and expert facilitation, it appears to be possible to stimulate rational debate about penal policy amongst the public. The trouble is it is not possible to reproduce these conditions at a national level. At this level, debate takes place through the mass media, the volume of information available is overwhelming and perplexing and political representatives have to try to win our votes. Indermauer and Hough (2002) have made a number of suggestions as to how we can try to change public attitudes largely through the provision and dissemination of information about sentencing and punishment to improve pubic knowledge and understanding. These are worthy aims, but the issue is not just about changing attitudes or providing better information, it is about the wider problem of the growing disenchantment with democratic politics.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPenal Populism, Sentencing Councils and Sentencing Policy
EditorsArie Freiberg, Karen Gelb
Place of PublicationDevon, UK
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2008


  • courts
  • sentencing
  • law
  • judges
  • law and order


Dive into the research topics of 'Institutional mechanisms for incorporating the public in the development of sentencing policy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this