For many years, there has been a perception amongst the community that Judges are out of touch with contemporary societal values when it comes to sentencing. The question however, is whether that perception is the product of our Judges and Magistrates, in fact being out of touch with community values, or inaccurate, incomplete and misleading reporting of cases in the media which make it seem that the sentences imposed by Courts are inadequate for the crimes committed.

Criticising Magistrates and Judges for being supposedly too lenient on criminals has become a favourite pastime of many mainstream media outlets. However, new research shows that, once fully informed about the facts of a case, most people within our community are actually more lenient on offenders than are Judges. This suggests that the problem is not the way Judges sentence offenders but, rather, the inaccurate and distorted way in which cases are reported and presented in the media.

New research by Professor Warner (who also happens to be the current Governor of Tasmania) provides irrefutable evidence that, once ordinary members of the community are properly informed about the facts of a particular case, most are actually more lenient towards the offender than Judges. In her research, Professor Warner surveyed jurors who sat through a trial and returned a verdict of guilty, asking those jurors what sentence they would have imposed on the offender, without knowing the sentence which the Judge actually imposed. The reason that jurors were chosen for this research is that they are ordinary members of the community, picked at random but, having sat through the whole trial, they were informed of all the facts in the case, not just those which a selective media may choose to report. The result was sobering, as 62% of the jurors came up with a sentence which was more lenient than that which the Judge imposed on the offender.

Clearly then, the media led perception of excessive leniency amongst Judges is not grounded in reality.

So, if Judges are not failing our community, why is there such a persistent perception to the contrary? The answer, surely, must be that it is in fact the main stream media that is failing us.

The problem is that there is a real disparity between the way in which cases are reported in the media and the actual facts of cases. The media thrives on controversy. This means that court reporters are under pressure to report on cases in a way in which it creates controversy even when none really exists. You may think that a court reporter who spends several days sitting in Court reporting on a case and files a story with the headline: “Judge imposes appropriate sentence” will not find favour with the editor. I am aware of reporters having filed reasonably accurate stories, only for the editor(s) to put a red pen through it and come up with a headline and content that entirely misrepresented the facts in the case.

The moral of the story is, next time you read an article in the newspaper or hear a story on the news about some outrageously lenient sentence imposed by a judge or magistrate, you should probably have a grain of salt on hand.

Final results from the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study
Listen to the full episode of the ABC Law Report

Michal Mantaj,
Conditsis Lawyers
Accredited Specialist, Criminal Law

(02) 4324 5688

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