Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts Honours


School of Psychology


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Dr Diane McKillop

Second Advisor

Dr Dierdre Drake


The formulation and amendment of legislation which forms the basis for the operation and administration of the Australian criminal justice system may be the role given to elected government officials but it is the citizens who elect them who bear ultimate responsibility. The way that members of the public reason about criminal justice issues therefore has the capacity to greatly influence decision making in this area. This paper will review some of the research which has attempted to explain the influence that several variables may have on the way that people reason about criminal justice. These research topics include fear of crime, fear of criminal victimisation, perceptions of crime seriousness, notions of vulnerability to crime due to age, and relationship issues between victims and offenders. This paper will also discuss the substantial increase in Australian prison populations over the past two decades and explore the notion that this increase may be driven by inappropriate or unjustified legislation that has been based upon flawed political interpretation of the public's reasoning about criminal justice. Recommendations for further research in this area are recommended and the potential impact of population aging upon the criminal justice system is discussed. Factors such as perceptions of moral wrongfulness, harmfulness, victim vulnerability, and the relationship of professional trust between an offender and a victim have been implicated as important influences in the general public's reasoning regarding the seriousness of a criminal offence and judgements regarding the deserved punishment of an offender. Research by McKillop (200 1) suggested that one of the highest levels of trust may exist between close family relatives. Victim vulnerability due to older age (60 or over) is explicitly stated within sections of the Western Australian Criminal code Act 1913 as a justification for the provision of harsher penalties for offences against this age group. This study attempted to determine if the general public viewed an offence as more serious when the victim was older and when the offender was a close family relative rather. A survey conducted with 210 participants examined the effect of manipulating victim age (40, 60, 80) and victim-offender relationship (the offender was either a stranger or a close family relative) within a short offence scenario regarding a burglary. Participants were asked to indicate their degree of negative emotional reaction, how morally wrong, how harmful they thought the offence was, and to make a recommendation regarding the severity of any punishment deserved by the offender. Contrary to expectations there was no significant effect of victim age on any of the variables. Where the offender was portrayed as a close family relative judgement regarding negative emotional reaction, harmfulness, and punishment severity was significantly less than when the offender was portrayed as a stranger. Implications regarding this study are discussed in the context of prior findings in this area of research. Limitations and recommendations for future research are discussed.