It is a stark number – 62% of Canadians think that the justice system is too soft in dealing with people who have broken the law according to a recent Angus Reid Institute survey on the justice system. Only 4% think it is too harsh. Phrasing the question this way, may for some, suggest that we should think of the system in terms of its impact on the person who has committed an offence — a punitive function of the justice system. And certainly, 33% said the primary purpose of sending people to prison is for punishment.
- The notion that we are too soft is held across most demographic groups. Women and men are equally likely to hold a too soft view but there is a significant age effect. Only 38% of those under 25 years of age think we are too soft and the too soft view increases with age. In part, young people are more likely to be unsure but they are also more likely to say too harsh or strikes the right balance.
- While the Harper government was in power, law and order was a significant theme and this clearly appealed to its base — almost 8 in 10 Conservative party voters in the last election hold the too soft view. Mandatory minimums, longer sentences, restrictions on parole, a changes to the credit for time-served were all clearly aimed at having a more punitive justice system. More information about the law and order policies and their impacts is available here.
What are young people thinking? Is their higher likelihood of taking a right balance or too harsh view driven by a different understanding of justice or just a lack of negative experiences? The Angus Reid Institute survey found that, perhaps ironically, that in the past two years it is young people who are more likely to report having been a victim of crime that involved the police. Almost a quarter (24%) of those 18 to 24 have experienced crime in the past two years versus only 5% of those 65 years and older.
We don’t have tables to show whether being a victim leads to a desire for harsher penalties, but the data on victimization suggests that it something other than experience that has driven the feeling that courts are too soft.
Crime and justice issues are challenging ones for the public. People are more likely to be a victim or know a victim than know someone who has experienced the justice system as an accused. It is harder to have empathy for the unknown. The experience of crime is also an emotional one and so the fear of crime is no doubt also emotional rather than rational.
While this helps account for the feeling that courts are too soft and the resonance of a crime and justice platform (especially among older voters), Canadians do have a more nuanced understanding of the role of punishment and what should be a crime. Support for capital punishment has waned, and the legalization of marijuana, assisted dying and prostitution are at the heart of a more personal freedom view of the criminal system.
Source: Angus Reid Institute online survey conducted between January 23 and 26, 2018 (n=1520). The survey was self-funded.
1Criminal Courts and Determining Guilt
While only 41% have a lot or complete confidence in criminal courts in their province, 60% agree either strongly or moderately that “Criminal courts do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty to determine guilt.”
2Justice System Treats Everyone Fairly
Although one reason for a lack of confidence in the justice system and courts might be because of sentencing, it is also possible that a lack of confidence is caused by perceptions of the system as being unfair. In that regard, only 37% agree that the justice system treats everyone fairly.