Crime Seriousness

In document Public attitudes to the principles of sentencing (Page 31-34)

In a sense, this entire research project was an exploration of public views on crime seriousness – the factors which increase or decrease crime seriousness, and, by inference, sentence severity. This chapter discusses findings relevant to some specific questions about crime seriousness. We begin by summarizing discussions in the focus groups with respect to the determinants of seriousness. Participants were asked to rank six offence types according to their seriousness. We did not place these questions on the survey, partly due to limited space in the questionnaire and partly because of the evident difficulty that participants had in undertaking this kind of ranking.12

Determinants of offence seriousness

The focus group participants were asked what makes an offence ‘serious’. In all eight groups, harm caused to individuals was described as the main criterion of offence seriousness. The relevance of emotional or psychological damage caused to victims (including fear), as well as physical harm, was mentioned in several groups. Several participants emphasised what another referred to as ‘duration of impact’; someone else, similarly, spoke of ‘the impact on the victim for their future life – say someone’s badly injured – I think that’s really serious.’ It was explicit or implicit in much that was said that harm in the form of financial loss is less important than physical, emotional or

psychological harm; and some emphasised that acquisitive crime is serious when it has a personal dimension:

To go into somebody’s house, who’s worked really really hard for what they’ve got .... to go into somebody’s house and ransack it, and take whatever you can …

If someone robbed from my house, I don’t think I’d be able to go back there again – knowing that someone’s been there ... touched all my stuff...


There is, of course, an extensive research literature on public rankings of offence seriousness (e.g., Wolfgang et al., 1985 and Roberts and Stalans, 2000 for a review). The fact that

respondents will comply with a ranking exercise does not necessarily justify it as a valid approach.

In half the groups, there were unprompted mentions of culpability, usually expressed in terms of ‘intent’ or ‘premeditation’. When specifically asked if culpability or intention is a factor in seriousness, most participants agreed. The meaning and implications of culpability were not explored in any depth, although in one group there was a vigorous debate about whether a drunk driver who kills someone on the road could be said to have committed a premeditated offence.

Ranking offence types

In addition to asking participants about offence seriousness in general terms, we

presented them with three pairs of offences and asked them to compare the seriousness of each pair, and then to rank all six. Participants’ views varied considerably in how they rated and conceptualised seriousness for this exercise – but several also commented on the difficulty of comparing the seriousness of such broad offences or offence types.

1. Criminal damage and social security fraud

In two of the focus groups, participants were unanimous that criminal damage is more serious; in the other groups, views on the relative seriousness of these two offences were mixed. Those who saw criminal damage as more serious did so on the grounds of its possible impact on individuals (‘Spray-painting an old lady’s house could be

devastating...’), while fraud was seen as more serious in terms of scale and pre- meditation (‘[fraudsters] are very, very clever’).

2. Possession with intent to supply class A drugs and assault causing grievous bodily harm (GBH)

Several participants regarded GBH as more serious, while others placed a greater emphasis on the drugs offence, and yet others argued that both are equally serious. The seriousness of GBH was said to lie in the harm caused to individuals, which was

contrasted with the ‘self-inflicted’ harm suffered by those who buy drugs. On the other hand, many spoke of the long-term and wide-scale damage that the supply of drugs can do to whole communities: ‘it has so much of a knock-on effect on so many other things’.

Participants were equally divided on the question of whether sexual assault (in terms of its impact on individuals) or dangerous driving (because of its potential to cause death) is more serious. Some raised the issue of culpability rather than harm – arguing that sexual assault is more intentional and hence more serious. One commented: ‘I think most of us drive dangerously one time or another; few of us grope women at random.’

Overall ranking of all offences

Most participants selected supply of class A drugs and/or GBH as the most serious of all six offences; several argued that dangerous driving should also be deemed ‘most

serious’. Social security fraud was frequently identified as one of the least, or the least, serious; with smaller numbers of participants also selecting dangerous driving, criminal damage or (more rarely) supply of class A drugs as ‘least serious’.


The focus group findings point to the frailty of ranking exercises when these are applied to disparate categories of crime and to broad categories of crime. It is well-established that people will comply with such exercises and that they have some surface validity. However, people clearly found it difficult – and arbitrary – to say whether, for example, the diffuse and long-term harms done by drug dealing were more or less serious than the very specific harms done to an individual victim of GBH.

Chapter 4

Aggravating factors at sentencing

In document Public attitudes to the principles of sentencing (Page 31-34)