British people rate the depravity of serious crimes differently from other nationalities. A study of more than 10,000 people in 25 countries by US researchers found that the British were less likely to rate aspects of violent crime as depraved.
While for most characteristics of crime there was general agreement between people in different countries, for six characteristics British respondents were more likely to rate them "not depraved" than other nationalities.
Michael Welner, a psychiatrist at New York University with extensive forensic experience, is talking to US politicians and the judiciary about how the findings might feed into the justice system.
"This is the first research that has ever been done in which the general public can directly influence sentencing. Justice has to reflect the perceptions of society, especially when liberty and even life are at stake," he said.
"This study could form the basis of new laws that would help guide judges in imposing a sentence based on depraved conduct," said Kevin Takata, the trials division chief prosecutor of Honolulu, Hawaii. "Rather than just trusting their gut feeling as to what constitutes depraved conduct, the study would suggest objective criteria that judges could look at before imposing sentences."
Welner said his work could help to minimize jury bias based on a defendant's race, appearance or socioeconomic status.
Jim Seward, a forensic psychologist in Phoenix, Arizona, agreed.
"I think it has the potential to introduce an element of fairness [into the justice system] that might be lacking right now," he said.
Welner's study, which he presented to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Seattle last Tuesday, involved listing 26 characteristics that the courts had used in past cases to identify depravity.
These included "intent to permanently disfigure" and "actions that prolong suffering." He asked people via an Internet survey to rate whether they considered them "especially depraved," "somewhat depraved" or "not depraved." He has had more than 10,000 responses, with about 8,700 from the US and 800 from the UK.
The same 16 characteristics were rated as somewhat or especially depraved by at least 90 percent of respondents in all countries. The different responses of people in the UK may be due partly to there being more men in the sample. Women in the survey were more likely to rate characteristics as more depraved than men.
A respondent's ethnicity, views on capital punishment and whether they had been a victim of violence did not seem to affect their ratings.