Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts Honours


School of Psychology


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Supervisor

Dr Diedre Drake


Public opinion has been evidenced as exerting significant influence over the development of, and alteration to, policies dealing with offenders (Roberts, 1992). Research suggests that an offender's ethnicity, as well as the seriousness of a crime, have a significant effect on public opinion regarding the appropriateness of an imposed sentence, and the goals of sentencing seen as most important (Herzog & Rattner, 2003). However whilst research in the United States and Europe has continued to expand, there is a significant lack of research directly related to the Australian context. The significant over-representation of Indigenous Australians in Australian prisons, potentially reflects some form of racial disparity in sentencing, that could be deeply grounded in the societal values held by the public (Weatherburn & Indermaur, 2004). It has been found that as the perceived severity of a crime increases, the public are more likely to support a punitive sentence (Tufts & Roberts, 2002). Similarly it has also been found that extralegal factors such as an offender's race can also affect the publics' views regarding the appropriateness of sentencing decisions made by judges (Case, 2008). Because of the significant influence public opinion holds over policy makers, and the potential for offender characteristics to negatively influence these perceptions, future research should focus on how firmly these perceptions are set in society. Furthermore, research should examine how the public could be educated to change these views through the use of widespread campaigns. The current study aimed to use an Australian representative sample to investigate how public opinions can be affected by such variables as an offender's ethnicity, as well as the seriousness of a crime. The significant over-representation of Indigenous Australians in Australian prisons, and a lack of research directly related to the Western Australian context created a rationale for this study. The study involved a 2x2 (offender's ethnicity x crime seriousness) mixed design, in a quantitative research approach, with opportunity for respondents to further explain their ratings. The study involved 1 07 participants who were each placed in two of four experimental conditions, and asked to read an experimentally manipulated scenario, and complete a questionnaire. Results indicated that there was no significant effect of offender's ethnicity on participants' views regarding the severity of sentence to be given, or the sentencing goals seen as most important. In contrast, results indicated a significant effect of crime type, with crimes described as physically violent such as murder, viewed as most serious, as opposed to crimes that did not cause physical injury to the victim, such as burglary. Furthermore, results indicated that severity of a crime did not influence the sentencing goals seen as most important, with retribution preferred by participant for both murder and burglary.