Changing attitudes toward the criminal justice system: results of an experimental study.

Author:Tanasichuk, Carrie L.
Position:Canada
 
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Public opinion polls from around the world have shown low rates of public confidence in the criminal justice system (CJS) (Latimer and Desjardins 2007; Roberts 2004; Tyler and Huo 2002). Polls have suggested that fewer than half (46%) of Canadians are confident in the CJS as a whole (Roberts 2004). When asked to differentiate between various components, differing levels of confidence are found for the different branches of the CJS: Canadians have reported the highest confidence in the police, followed by the courts and corrections (Latimer and Desjardins 2007; Roberts 2004).

Low levels of public confidence are a problem as the CJS relies on public support to function effectively (Casey 2008). Members of a society are more likely to comply with rules and regulations when they see legal authorities as legitimate (Tyler and Huo 2002). Furthermore, individuals who are not confident in the CJS are less likely to report crimes, to provide police with helpful information, or to testify as witnesses in court trials (Indermaur and Hough 2002; Roberts 2004; Roberts and Edwards 1989). There are also implications for social cohesion (Roberts 2004). Statistics Canada (2003) found that people who had higher levels of confidence in the CJS were more likely to report a greater sense of belonging to Canada. In a similar vein, Tyler and Blader (2000) found that participants in the United States reported less rule-breaking behaviour (such as illegal activities) when they were more engaged in their communities and community activities.

A major source of dissatisfaction found in public opinion polls is that the public sees the CJS as being too lenient on offenders. This is hardly surprising, as there is a high level of ignorance regarding the CJS, with most members of the public not being aware of average sentence lengths for particular offences and not being informed about alternatives to incarceration (e.g., community sentences) (Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate 2000; Doob 2000; Indermaur and Hough 2002; Hough and Park 2002; Mitchell and Roberts 2011; Stalans and Diamond 1990). Interestingly, when participants are given information identical to that of a court judge overseeing a criminal trial, their sentencing opinions tend to be less harsh and more in line with actual sentences passed down by judges (De Keijser, van Koppen, and Elffers 2007). Canadians also have a poor knowledge of crime trends. They tend to believe that crime rates are increasing and they overestimate recidivism rates and the number of offenders who are granted parole (Roberts 2004). Furthermore, laypersons overestimate the severity of typical offences that appear in court (Stalans and Diamond 1990). This inaccuracy contributes to negative attitudes and lowered confidence in the CJS (Roberts 2004). Perceptions and attitudes based on misinformation can be a problem because policy makers base their decisions about crime and criminal justice partly on public opinion (Casey 2008; Latimer and Desjardins 2007).

Strategies for improving attitudes toward the CJS

Public education is one method of improving attitudes toward the CJS. Laypersons do not have accurate perceptions of crime trends or of the typical cases heard in courts (Roberts 2004; Stalans and Diamond 1990). If the public were educated on national crime trends and sentencing practices, perhaps there would be greater satisfaction and confidence in the CJS. Although improving CJS attitudes has not been researched extensively, there have been a few attempts to increase confidence and satisfaction by educating the public. Much of this research has occurred in the United Kingdom, where improving CJS attitudes has been a declared goal of the government.

In 1994, the National Centre for Social Research and Channel 4 Television collaborated to carry out the first deliberative poll in England. A deliberative poll gathers a large, representative group of individuals who are then educated about a topic (in this instance, criminal justice) by a group of professionals. These individuals also participate in group discussions regarding the information that has been presented to them. Participants' attitudes toward the topic in question are measured both before and after the deliberative poll (Hough and Park 2002).

Prior to the deliberative poll, respondents had quite harsh views of sentencing, had little support for rehabilitation, and did not feel that the police were effective. Over 80% of respondents felt that criminals should receive tougher sentences, and the majority thought that the government should direct its spending and efforts to punishing rather than reforming offenders. Following the deliberative poll, participants tended to adopt more liberal views. There was less support for harsh prison sentences and more emphasis on preventative measures, such as improved security and neighbourhood watch in high crime areas. These changes were still present at the 10-month follow-up interview (Hough and Park 2002).

Not surprisingly, the main disadvantage of deliberative polls is that the cost can be prohibitive. One possible way to circumvent this disadvantage is to create standardized materials containing the information presented by the experts at the deliberative poll, such as videos or booklets. In 2000, the British Home Office attempted to increase public confidence in the CJS through three methods: (1) a booklet, (2) a seminar, and (3) a video. Attitudes and knowledge regarding the CJS were assessed via pre and post interviews, with the post interviews occurring several weeks after the study. Participants were administered a questionnaire which asked 11 questions regarding CJS procedures and statistics. On the pre-test, initial knowledge was found to be poor, with the majority of participants answering more than half of the questions incorrectly. All three conditions resulted in a significant increase in knowledge, with the video resulting in the highest increase, and the booklet and seminar resulting in equal knowledge increase; although it should be noted that the higher increase in knowledge in the video condition may be due to the fact that these participants were administered the post-test sooner than the participants in the other conditions. In addition to an increase in knowledge, participants in all three conditions were also found to have more confidence in the CJS as a whole (Mirrlees-Black 2002).

A follow-up study was conducted by Salisbury (2004) to further explore the effectiveness of the CJS booklet, as it was the least expensive option assessed by Mirrlees-Black (2002). The booklet was delivered to 845 participants. Participants were not instructed to read it nor were they informed that they would later be tested on the information. Approximately two weeks later, participants were contacted for a follow-up interview. Compared to baseline (measured via the annual British Crime Survey), it was found that participants who either read or "flicked through" the booklet (i.e., 62%) had an increased knowledge of crime trends. These participants also reported higher levels of confidence in the CJS. However, when the researchers examined a sub-sample of BCS respondents who did not receive the booklet, it was found that these individuals also showed an increase in confidence, suggesting that merely being involved with the BCS may change one's views and that the difference in confidence levels might not be due to an increase in knowledge.

More recently, Singer and Cooper (2009) conducted another intervention, based on marketing theory, to improve CJS attitudes in the United Kingdom. In regards to improving CJS attitudes, marketing theory dictates that to improve perceptions: (1) favourable attributes must be promoted, (2) these attributes must be presented in a persuasive way, and (3) participants must be reminded of these attributes to overcome negative stereotypes (Evans and Berman 1990). Accordingly, a public information booklet containing information on crime and criminal justice was developed with these three principles in mind. The booklet was distributed in an area with relatively low levels of confidence in the CJS. To obtain baseline data, a telephone survey was administered (Singer and Cooper 2009). This 20-page booklet was distributed to over 2,000 individuals. A booklet was chosen, as previous research (Mirrlees-Black 2002; Salisbury 2004) showed that this was the most cost-effective way of increasing knowledge. The booklet was delivered in three ways: (1) directly mailing the booklet to an individual, (2) handing the booklet to the individual with limited interaction, and (3) handing the booklet to the individual as well as providing a verbal summary of the information. This manipulation was included to explore the effect of active and passive interest. A fourth group served as a control condition and did not receive the booklet. A follow-up telephone survey was administered, on average, four weeks later (Singer and Cooper 2009).

Analyses revealed that participants in all three of the experimental conditions had a significantly higher level of knowledge at the posttest as compared to the control condition. Interestingly, although all three experimental conditions resulted in an increase in knowledge, only participants in the two contact conditions had significantly higher post-test confidence levels than did controls. No significant differences were found between the mail condition and the control condition. The follow-up survey also found that participants in the contact conditions were more likely to read the booklet than participants in the mail condition. This study showed that the method of delivery may have important implications for attitude change (Singer and Cooper 2009).

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