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Community sentencing: Public Perceptions and Attitudes - Summary Research Report



  • Overall, there is a feeling that crime and the severity of crime in Scotland is increasing, stemming from a breakdown of social values and a power imbalance. There is a tendency to hold the authorities accountable, as it is perceived to be indicative of a system failing to deal with crime or engender a culture of respect for the law and society as a whole.
  • Against this backdrop and resultant culture of fear and helplessness, there is an instinctive compulsion to redress the current imbalance. This manifests itself in demands for tougher sentences for crime in general, but also for less serious crimes, to give offenders a fright and jolt them off the offending continuum.
  • At a more rational level, there is acknowledgement that prison is not the answer for most minor crimes (especially first offences). People are torn between wanting tougher sentences on the one hand for criminals and recognising at the same time that punishment alone does not facilitate the individual's re-entry into society. In line with this, it is easy to condemn criminals collectively, but confrontation with individual circumstances can contradict the impulse for tougher sentences and instead encourages consideration of a more balanced punitive and compassionate approach.
  • The public are open to alternatives to prison and to dealing with crime generally. There is also a willingness to entertain the proposition that community sentencing can offer a number of benefits in theory. In practice there is little evidence to suggest it is currently effective at dealing with crime.
  • When presented with the various components of community sentencing, respondents' fears concerning the lack of a strong punitive element are broadly felt to be confirmed. This results in a sense of helplessness and resignation: while it is acknowledged that prison is not the answer to minor non-violent crime, nor is community sentencing in its current form. All of this compounds the notion that the criminal justice system is failing in its role of ensuring a law abiding society.
  • There is a willingness to consider community sentencing as a viable option, providing current initiatives are redesigned to incorporate identifiable sufficiently punitive elements.
  • The current lack of awareness and understanding of the scope of community sentencing should be addressed.
  • There are two key reasons for this: firstly, the current dearth of information means it is not operating effectively as a deterrent to crime; secondly, a lack of tangible evidence of the benefits of community sentencing results in, at best, indifference and, at worst, cynicism and suspicion that it is not sufficiently punitive.
  • The key issue is one of communication and there are several aspects to this:
  • On a more general level, an educative element is required to inform the public as to what community sentencing is, when and why it is used and what it aims to achieve. This is especially so for the community service element, with which the public identify most.
  • On a more local level, communities need to be informed that community sentencing is taking place and is yielding the desired results - not just in terms of the long term impact on re-offending and crime, but also the short term community and societal benefits.
  • The tone of communication material needs to be informative, educational, convincing and reassuring, with a clear focus on the punitive element and benefits to society.
  • Careful consideration should be given to the overall strategic positioning of community sentencing: pitching it as an 'alternative to prison' could inadvertently result in people assuming prison should have been within their sentencing consideration set when it may not otherwise have been.
  • Given the current high level of cynicism in relation to government statistics, it is important that careful consideration is also given to the sources of information given to the public. They are more likely to be receptive to a less authoritative body without a perceived hidden agenda, e.g., those who deal with enforcing community sentencing on a day-to-day basis. These individuals/organisations are seen as more likely to offer an unbiased assessment of the effectiveness of community sentencing.
  • Local press could be a natural vehicle for communicating information about specific community sentencing projects and success stories in their area. Using examples of success stories in terms of how the community has benefited as well as the individual, rather than bamboozling the public with figures, could engage on a more emotional and meaningful level.
  • Higher visibility could be achieved at a local level by having the offenders wear clothing which identifies them as undertaking community service programmes.
  • While the cost benefits of community sentencing provide a compelling argument in its favour, care should be taken in relation to any cost related message: communications should not suggest that cost implications or overcrowded prisons are the driving factors behind sentences other than prison. Cost is a secondary benefit, albeit an important one, and should only be emphasised as part of an overall strategy highlighting other benefits.