Public attitudes to criminal justice issues may be more complex than simply assuming 'law and order' policies will be politically popular, writes Dr Ian Marder of the School of Law and Criminology.

Recent months have seen moves to increase the severity of sentences in Ireland, such as by raising maximum penalties for certain knife offences. This comes despite evidence that knife use isn't rising, longer sentences don’t deter, and our prisons are bursting at the seams.

This begs the question: why pursue these policies? There is a sense that sending more people to prison for longer periods, or being more 'punitive’, enjoys widespread public support.

In 2023 former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar claimed Ireland needs more prison spaces because the public want ‘dangerous people’ imprisoned for decades. The new Taoiseach, Simon Harris, has signalled an intent to foreground so-called ‘law and order’ policies – again, on the assumption that this will be politically popular.

Like many countries, Ireland sees periodic waves of ‘penal populism’, where sentencing policy is driven by perceived public desires for harsh punishment. This is instead of looking at the research evidence of what works to prevent and reduce crime or meet victims’ needs, or by nuanced explorations of what public judgements on policy options might actually be.

Attitudes to justice in Ireland

Like many aspects of criminal justice in Ireland, public attitudes are under-researched, but what we do know suggests the picture may be more complex than is commonly assumed. A common way to assess public attitudes to policy issues is through a nationally representative survey. Such a survey was conducted in 2021, and again in 2022.

Asked which aspects of the criminal justice system were in the greatest need of improvement, only 11% in 2022 said that sentences should be longer (down from 14% in 2021), and 2% said that the system was too lenient on young offenders (1% or less in 2021). This hardly implies that the Irish public is desperate for a more punitive system.

When asked what factors do or would make them feel safer in the community, the top three answers in both years were the presence of Gardaí on the street, local neighbourhood watch schemes and street lighting. None of these necessarily indicated that harsher sentences are priorities. Instead, it seems the desire is for more investment in crime prevention.

The Irish public also do not seem to support punitive approaches to drug offences. A RED C poll in 2023 found that most respondents supported the legalisation of cannabis and investments in harm reduction. 50% supported decriminalising all drugs (30% opposed). At least 6,000 criminal charges for simple drug possession were before Irish courts last year so we could actually see a much less punitive system if policies aligned with public attitudes in this respect.

Another indicator of punitiveness might be support for specific sentences, such as the death penalty. The most recent data on this is from an international poll in 2000: Ireland came third-bottom out of 59 countries. At 17%, Irish support for the death penalty was only one-third that in the UK. Research into the use of capital punishment in post-independence Ireland found that the public show ‘very little desire to see it ever reintroduced’.

The role of 'deliberative polling'

Surveys can be used to gauge attitudes in many different ways. For example, another nationally representative survey in Ireland back in 2007 focused on sentencing, prisons and preferences in terms of investment. It gave participants €10 million to spend, showing them what that would buy if it were spent in different ways – a form of ‘deliberative polling’. They found that Gardaí, youth workers and drug treatment spaces were the top three preferred investments and only 5% of respondents elected to invest in new prison places.

These findings align with international research which suggests that public attitudes to criminal justice depend on the information made available. In the above survey, rather than simplistically asking if sentencing is too lenient, participants were given a sense of both the options available, and what investing in each would get you.

It also asked more sophisticated ‘either or’ questions, such as whether offenders with mental illnesses or addictions should be treated in mental health facilities or in addiction programmes instead of being imprisoned. A full 91% agreed completely or somewhat for people with mental illness, and 81% for those with drug addictions. Again, the implication is that the public may be significantly less punitive than current justice practice: a substantial percentage of people sent to prison today suffer from one or both of these treatable health issues.

The international story

These findings align with research in other countries. One US study asked victims of crime their investment preferences, and sizeable majorities favoured investing in education, job creation or mental health treatment over prison. A recent report from the UK found that the perception that sentencing is too lenient ‘tends to lessen noticeably when the public are presented with actual scenarios and sentences’.

Researchers who saw similar findings in Scandinavian countries concluded that punitiveness decreases when people have more information about the cases and people involved. This fits with the idea that people have an intuitive sense of proportionality and recognise the need for case-by-case approaches to sentencing, even for violent offences.

Finally, the evidence suggests people are less likely to select prison when other options like restorative justice are presented. As the American author Michelle Alexander summarised when exploring why victims of serious violence would opt for restorative justice instead of court, when we ask people about their views on prisons but omit the other options, we are effectively asking them whether they prefer prison over nothing at all – a false binary.

The 'tough on crime' cycle

As long as politicians continue to assume that voters want them to be ‘tough on crime’, we may never escape this cycle. Every time, we’ll miss another opportunity for social progress by failing to invest in smart, preventative, victim-centred justice policies and services.

Recent research in the US found that politicians underestimate the public’s desire for investing in the community to prevent crime in the first place. Given the chronic underfunding of housing, health and victim support services, we should use more nuanced methods to explore where the public wants the government to invest. Politicians are mistaken if they think citizens would prefer to throw their neighbours in prison, than to help them solve the problems in their lives that lead to crime in the first place.

In other words, it is entirely unnecessary to frame criminal justice as a competition to see who can be ‘toughest’. Alternative framings can provide the political space for investments in prevention and community justice.

It is in all our interests for criminal justice policy to be designed in ways that will make everyone safer. Our justice policies can be both evidence-based and popular, if governments intelligently engage with research and the public.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Front photo credit: Stephenjudge, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons