The results of a survey conducted by Alberta Justice (1997) reveal that the media is a primary source of information for most Albertans. Individuals obtained their crime news from the newspaper (81%), television (75%), and radio (36%). The media also has a high perceived credibility. For example, 79% of Albertans thought the media was very or somewhat accurate on their coverage of crime stories. Moreover, 48% of Albertans thought that the media pays the right amount of attention to crime issues and 15% thought the media could increase its coverage of crime related stories. The same survey also revealed that, contrary to accurate crime statistics, many Albertans felt that the crime rate had significantly increased and that it was a significant problem in their community.

Policy makers and other officials’ beliefs about public opinion highly influence criminal justice policy. That is, officials create policy based on the public’s distorted view of crime, which is generated from sensational crime stories in the media. There is, however, another important factor that contributes to legislative changes that prove to be ineffective. Politicians often rely on the publication of research findings of opinion polls used to survey public perceptions of the criminal justice system. A significant problem, however, is that most opinion polls use simple questions that elicit simple answers. For example, if a member of the public, who is even slightly inclined to believe that sentences are less severe than they are, is asked to rate whether sentences are “too harsh, about right, or too lenient,” the answer by an overwhelming majority will be “sentences are too lenient.” Without current and accurate statistics, individuals combine their media-generated knowledge of the criminal justice system with the simplicity of the question to provide answers that appear to be consistent with their beliefs and values and that coincide with other members of their community.

Furthermore, politicians and media create a self-fulfilling prophecy by continuously portraying the crime rate as reaching epidemic proportions. In other words, when the public is repeatedly given particular - that is, slanted - information over a long period of time, they will soon regard the information as fact. As for criminal activity, the public understandably believes that the crime rate is out of control because they have been subjected to distorted and sensationalised information instead of evidence which confirms that the property and violent crime rate decreased over the past several years. Politicians must assume a leadership role and provide information that is timely and accurate. Moreover, they must reassure the public that the way to deal effectively with crime is through crime prevention strategies and effective alternatives to the formal justice system.

Another significant problem lies in the fact that policy makers tend to overestimate the public’s passion regarding criminal justice issues. The vast majority of people surveyed on the topic of criminal justice will provide answers to almost all of the questions asked of them. Generally speaking though, as recent study revealed, only 22% of Canadians consider crime to be a “top-of-the-mind” issue (Angus Reid report, 1997, p. 38). Policy makers tend to overrate the importance of justice issues to the public and, therefore, justice reform issues that may not actually weigh heavily in the minds of the public are regarded as a primary concern for policy makers.

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