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Public perceptions of sentencing

On the road
Published: February 2021

Exploring public perceptions of the sentencing of causing death by driving offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of families of victims.

In 2019, the Scottish Sentencing Council commissioned ScotCen Social Research to undertake qualitative research to explore public perceptions of the sentencing of causing death by driving offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of families of victims.

The aim of this research study was to explore public perceptions of the sentencing of causing death by driving offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of families of victims.

Findings

  • While participants were aware of some offences, overall participants did not have a clear understanding of the full range of causing death by driving offences. For example, the distinction between dangerous and careless driving was not always well understood by participants. Participants tended to associate careless driving with a lack of intent whereas dangerous driving was associated with more deliberate intent.
  • Participants were aware of some of the factors currently taken into account during sentencing including the culpability of the offender, the harm caused and whether the offender showed any sign of remorse. However, overall there was a lack of awareness in terms of the full extent of factors which the court takes into account during sentencing.
  • Proportionality was considered to be of great importance. There was a view that sentences should be scaled according to the culpability of the offender (e.g. the more reckless the driving was, the higher the sentence should be). Offences considered most serious, by both members of the public and family members of victims, were those where people were behaving in a way they knew was against the law: driving dangerously, driving whilst under the influence of alcohol or drugs or driving whilst disqualified. Careless driving was generally perceived as less serious than the other offences.
  • Participants thought that certain factors should carry more weight than other factors namely: the seriousness of the offence, the harm caused, the impact on the victim and the risk of re-offending. There was no consensus as to whether a guilty plea is currently, and should be, taken into consideration when sentencing.
  • There was no consensus as to whether, and how, multiple fatalities should impact on sentencing. Some participants thought the sentence should be longer to take into account each life lost. Others thought the sentence should not be higher as the circumstances that caused the incident could be the same for one or multiple people and the sentence should be based on the circumstances.
  • There were participants who thought prison should be a sentencing option for all types of causing death by driving offences while others thought that a custodial sentence should only be given for the most serious offences. Participants thought a custodial sentence should be long enough to mark the seriousness of the crime and act as a deterrent but not be so long as to prevent rehabilitation and reform of the offender.
  • A prison sentence was not always deemed appropriate, and there were views that a community-based sentence would be more likely to result in rehabilitation.
  • In addition to a prison sentence or community-based sentence, participants thought offenders should have a period of disqualification from driving, be made to re-sit and pass their driving test and be issued a fine. Family members said they would appreciate an apology from the offender.
  • Participants thought disqualification from driving should be longer. There was a view that running disqualification and a custodial sentence concurrently was ineffective and diminished the sentence. Some participants thought people should be disqualified from driving for life to prevent them from reoffending.
  • Overall, participants felt that causing death by driving offences were not taken as seriously as they should be and in particular that their expectations of sentencing were not met by the reality of what happened. This led to a sense that the system was “too lenient” and did not reflect the harm caused, both in terms of the victim’s life and the loss to the family of the victim. Charge-reductions; lowering a sentence because of a guilty plea; releasing offenders before their full prison sentence is served; and, sentences invariably falling far short of the statutory maxima were all cited as examples of this sense of leniency.
  • Although the need for flexibility in sentencing to take into account the individual circumstances of the case and previous convictions was recognised, current sentencing was perceived as inconsistent. Greater transparency was sought to understand sentencing decision-making. Participants wanted sentencing to be proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the case and thought sentencing guidelines could help achieve greater consistency and transparency in sentencing.
  • Although participants were very interested in the attitude of the offender (and expressions of genuine remorse), there was reluctance among many participants to take the offender’s personal and family circumstances into account as mitigation for their actions. Some were of the view that only “hard facts” should be considered under mitigating factors as it is difficult to assess the sincerity of emotions such as remorse. However, some people’s views altered once they were presented with the details of a real case.
  • Family members of victims would like to see improvements in communication around the reasons for sentencing decisions and the range of support available to them. They would also welcome the opportunity of receiving an apology from the offender. Victim statements were perceived as a good method to give voice to the victim and for the judge to understand the impact of their loss on the family. There were participants who valued the support they received from services such as the Victim Notification Scheme however, some family members felt uninformed about the support that may be available.
  • When asked if their views on sentencing for causing death by driving offences had changed after reviewing a scenario based on a real case, there were participants who said their opinions stayed the same and that sentences were “too lenient” while others said they revised their views noting the many factors to consider when sentence such cases.

Methodology

To explore public perceptions of sentencing for death by driving offences in Scotland, 30 people took part in a focus group or interview in March and April 2019. Eighteen people took part in three public focus groups. They were aged between 23 to 77 years. Eight interviews were conducted with 12 family members of victims (parents, siblings and a cousin) from across Scotland.

ScotCen researchers:

Susan Reid, Hannah Biggs, Kaushi Attygalle, Konstantina Vosnaki

External researchers:

Dr Rachel McPherson (University of Glasgow) and Professor Cyrus Tata (Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime & Justice, Law, School, University of Strathclyde)