Has the tide gone out for law and order? Do the so called “tough on crime” populist election campaigns still work with the modern electorate?
With Bracks and Baillieu jostling for the “tough on crime” pole position in the lead up to the November Victorian Election, is all the talk about crime figures and lenient sentences still worth all the effort?
Opinion polls and public research in several countries are indicating that voters are seriously questioning the traditional law and order assumptions. Many people now seem to believe that the basic assumptions that rely on imprisonment as the major response to crime are flawed.
Law and order electioneering seems somewhat inevitable. Politicians have been successfully spruiking tough on crime policies since Reagan and Thatcher turned law and order populism into an art form back in the 80s.
Law and order has since become ingrained as a big ticket election item in just about every constituency in the Western world, enough to make or break a party’s fortune. So much so that in a wide-scale study of the criminal justice systems of Canada, United States, United Kingdom Australia and New Zealand, authors found that contemporary criminal justice policies in each of those five countries have been specifically designed to appeal to voters rather than actually preventing or reducing crime.
However, in recent years another world wide trend seems to be emerging. Whether it is because of the human and economic impacts of rising prison populations becoming more evident or heightened voter scepticism of political trickery, what is evident is increasing voter sophistication when it comes to law and order.
In detailed “focus- group” consultations with South Australian voters prior to their state election this year, law and order was seen, for the first time, as a negative. The consultations found that ten years ago "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" was a sure-fire vote winner. Nowadays voters are jaded as tougher laws have not made them feel any safer, and they are looking for more nuanced approaches. People were asking whether it would give a better law and order outcome to employ an extra 400 police, or 400 teachers.
The International Crime Victimisation Survey has found that Australian attitudes to crime have become somewhat less punitive over the past few years. This is also reflected in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes which has seen a decrease in the proportion of Australians who support stronger sentences.
Most recently this has been confirmed in a Melbourne University study by criminologist Dr Austin Lovegrove in which 475 community participants were asked to give what they thought were appropriate sentences to a series of violent crimes. It was found that once people were made familiar with the personal circumstances of a violent crime they tended to give substantially more lenient sentences than the offenders actually received from the judge. This study clearly refutes the commonly held view that judges are more lenient than the general public.
Indications are that tough-on-crime populism is also facing rejection by voters in numerous other countries.
In Canada, with a minority government and the ever-looming election within the year, crime in general has appeared low on voters’ minds, despite Stephen Harper’s Conservatives continuing to hammer home their crime platform at every opportunity.
In California alone, there are more people imprisoned than in any other country in the world except China. However, in light of Governer Schwarzenegger’s push for even more prisons, public opinion polls are showing that three out of four Californians prefer rehabilitation and prevention over sending more young people to prison.
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