Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts Honours


School of Psychology and Social Sciences


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Catherine Ferguson

Second Advisor

Dr Dierdre Drake


Australia has recently experienced a punitive swing in sentencing policies and legislation. Consequently, politicians have responded favourably to popular demands for harsher sentencing. A comprehensive review of the current literature has been undertaken to understand why the community has adopted such a punitive position. It has been suggested that the media have hypersensitised the public into believing that crime is much more prevalent than it actually is, resulting in the individual fearing becoming a victim of crime. The public then chooses to elect politicians who appear to be concerned with their safety and the associated legislation. Expectancy/value theory contends that people's behaviour is motivated by what they expect to occur and the values which they hold. Public opinion also affects the way in which the goals of sentencing including retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation or protection of the community, are prioritised. Retribution is generally the most favoured principle in sentencing and therefore pro-retributive policies tend to be more supported, both in the media and by the public. This literature review will discuss how public opinion has the ability to influence sentencing policy and legislation. The influence media has on how crime and sentencing are perceived will also be examined and the principles underlying sentencing were investigated. Relevant theories that explain individuals' behaviour and what affects their values and opinions will also be discussed. Gender-specific disparities were investigated with respect to the type of sentencing goal people choose, to distinguish whether different genders prioritise the various goals of sentencing. Other issues discussed include factors influencing sentencing for offenders such as mitigating and aggravating factors, culpability, intentionality and foreseeability. This review of the literature aims to present an insight into how the opinions of individuals in society affect the manner in which sentencing is conducted. Academics have been intrigued by the relationship between public opinion and sentencing policy and legislation. The opinions of the majority of the public can have a substantial impact on the way in which legislation is created. Attribution theory contends that behaviour is the by-product of a person's motives, expectancy and values. It has been argued that the attitudes that form a person's opinion are heavily affected by the media. This is the only source many people have to access information about crime and sentencing legislation and policy. Sensationalised articles on violent crime can then produce a 'fear of crime' response in individuals, which leads them to support more punitive sentencing policies and the politicians who support them, to help ensure their safety. Sentencing goals are also affected by a person's attitudes and opinions. The four primary goals of sentencing include: retribution, deterrence (general and specific), rehabilitation, and retribution. Research has argued that a gender difference may also be present in how people choose to view crime and which sentencing goals they prioritise. Other factors such as intention, foreseeability and outcome also affect the sentence that is handed down to an offender. The current study examined the responses to two scenarios with alternate outcomes. Both scenarios involved the offender punching the victim once and the victim falling to the ground. In one scenario the victim's head hits the ground, he is knocked unconscious and later dies as a result of the injury. In the second scenario the victim received a couple of stitches, but is otherwise fine. This is in reference to the new law 'Unlawful assault causing Death' that was passed in WA in 2008. This study investigated two research questions. Firstly, would people sentence an offender more severely based on the outcome of their criminal act? Secondly, would female and male respondents view the crime differently and therefore feel the offender should be sentenced differently? Both parametric and non-parametric analyses were conducted on the results, as normality could not be assumed for all the questions. The results indicated that the aspects of the each case were viewed significantly differently in comparison to one another. Analysis of the responses revealed prison terms given to the offender in the 'death' condition were significantly greater than those given to the offender in the 'no death' condition. Surprising, analysis of the sentencing goals indicated that those in the 'death' condition favoured a rehabilitative approach to the sentence given, whereas those in the 'no death' condition favoured a retributive approach. Therefore, it can be concluded that the current study supports the contention that there is a significant difference in the manner in which a crime is viewed and responded to, based on the crime's outcome. The study did not however, find a significant difference in the manner in which each of the genders viewed or responded to the crime.