Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Supervisor

Associate Professor Ed Helmes


It is popularly assumed that the public is highly punitive toward criminal offenders and that its reasoning about criminal offences is emotionally and morally based. This assumption has been challenged by social scientists who cite influences of news media and methodological flaws in empirical studies as contributing causes. Public sentiment is a basis for law and the increasing responsiveness of legislator to what is perceived to be public opinion on crime means that accurate information on enduring principles in the public's intuitive reasoning about criminal justice is vital. An initial exploratory study (N = 34) presented members of the public with descriptions of emotionally and morally provocative offences, morally indignant reactions and the assignment of punishments that were disproportionate to the objective harm caused by the offences indicated aspects of offences and associated reasoning principles that were worthy of further, experimental investigation. Important principles appeared to be breach of trust by an offender in a position of trust and the vulnerability of victims. A second study (N = 348) examined the influence of these two variables in a 3 x 3 (offender position of trust x victim vulnerability) between-subjects experiment. Findings confirmed that victim vulnerability exacerbates the public's condemnation of offences in a more prosaic offence. However the results also showed that an offender who occupied a highly trusted position in society was not more highly condemned than offenders in less trusted positions. In addition to the finding that the highly trusted offender was perceived to be significantly less in need of a punishment aimed at individual deterrence, this finding led to a hypothesis that his high status may have protected him from public sanction. It was also concluded that the type of trust whose violation the participants of the initial study strongly condemned may have been the trust that is inherent in relationships, rather than in social positions. Survey research (N1 = 192, N2 = 237) provided an empirical basis for unconfounded representations of status and trust in further investigations. Doctors, lawyers and police officers were selected as exemplars of various levels of trust and status. A subsequent experimental study (N = 122) manipulated offenders' trust and status, and the existence of a professional relationship between the offender and victim in a 3 x 2 between-subject design. Results indicated that the existence of a professional trust relationship interacted with the status and position of trust of an offender in their effect on public condemnation. The high status of an offender became a liability in terms of condemnation when that offender also had a professional relationship with his victim, but only when the offender occupied a trusted position in society. The same study indicated that, in an offence where no professional relationship with the victim existed, high status offered a significant degree of protection from a punishment aimed at general deterrence. It was concluded that, although concerns for victim vulnerability are ubiquitous in the public's reasoning about criminal justice, trust is a principle that is applied complexly and which interacts with offender status and offender-victim relationship. The public's responses to criminal offences are both more complex and more rational than is widely believed. The variability found in the data collected for this series of studies indicated that criminal justice researchers must be cautious in assuming consensus in public evaluations of offences and its reasoning about deserved punishment.