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Social Climate

Convicting the innocent is the graver sin

All systems of government make mistakes, but which do you think is worse: To convict an innocent person, or to let a guilty person go free?”

This survey question, asking for a moral evaluation of the consequence of miscarriage of justice, was part of the 2016 Role of Government Module of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), my data source in three columns starting 4/14/2018.


This ISSP survey is finding both global opinion and Filipino opinion squarely on the side of caring more to protect the innocent than to punish the guilty.

In the 28 countries that have so far completed and submitted their national surveys of adults to the ISSP archive, an average of 64 percent said it is worse to convict an innocent person.


Only 24 percent said it is worse to let a guilty person go free.  Ten percent could not choose what to answer, and 2 percent had no answer at all.  The option “can’t choose” was made known to respondents before they answered.

In the Philippines, where the survey was done by Social Weather Stations in the first half of 2016—i.e., before the start of the current Duterte administration—61 percent said it is worse to convict the innocent, 29 percent it is worse to let a guilty person go free, 9 percent could not choose, and 1 percent did not answer.

The country with the most concern for the innocent is Norway, where 82 percent said it is worse to convict an innocent person. No other country had 80 or more percent with this answer.

There are six countries where 70-79 percent of the people are more concerned for the innocent, namely Denmark (79), Georgia (79), the United States (75), Iceland (75), the Czech Republic (73), and Israel (71).

Thirteen are in the 60-69 range, namely Sweden (69), Switzerland (68), Slovakia (68), Latvia (68), Croatia (67), Lithuania (66), Slovenia (66), Germany (66), Spain (66), Finland (64), Venezuela (64), the Philippines (61), and Japan (61).

At the median of 66 percent are four countries, in ranks 13-16; the Philippines is below the median, in rank 19 of the 28 countries with data so far.

There are six countries in the 50-59 range: France (59), South Korea (58), New Zealand (58), Hungary (56), United Kingdom (55), and Chile (53).


The two countries in which less than half feel that convicting the innocent is worse are Thailand (46) and Taiwan (40). Taiwan is the only country where those that decry freeing the guilty (47 percent) outnumber those concerned about convicting the innocent.

After Taiwan, the countries next most concerned about not punishing the guilty are Chile (42 percent), South Korea (38 percent), Hungary (35 percent) and Thailand (30 percent).

More country data are forthcoming, since the ISSP members in good standing now number 42.  But there is no guarantee that every member will be able to conduct its survey, or that it will be able to field all items, without exception, in the questionnaire, given its political climate.

In particular, I am very interested in seeing the survey results for Russia and China, which are ISSP members.  However, government regulation of surveys is severe in both countries, most of all in China.  The Chinese government tends to be very sensitive to survey items that are revealing of the state of human rights in the country.

SWS and its fellow members of ISSP are part of the international social science community.  The basis for our longevity is commitment to scientific practice, regardless of the survey findings.


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TAGS: ISSP, moral evaluation, Social survey
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