Much of the survey data on public knowledge and attitudes to sentencing and punishment gathered over recent years have suggested that the public in western jurisdictions support harsher punishment and have diminishing confidence in the criminal courts. The results of research on the same issues using focus groups, deliberative polls or other methods which provide more information or allow respondents to discuss their views with others, appear to suggest that these punitive attitudes become more moderate as well as more complex and contradictory. Recent research in Scotland has produced similar results. What do these results mean? Are the public punitive or not? The argument presented here is that punitive attitudes exist alongside more rational and more reflective attitudes. Part of the explanation for this is that attitudes are, at least in part, an artefact of the methodology used to discover them. This does not mean that they are not real and substantial, but rather that public opinion is much more nuanced and contradictory than it appears from survey research. This interpretation raises different challenges for political leadership and policy making.
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