Confidence in the Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

Foreword | Confidence in the criminal justice system has emerged as a critical issue at the interface of the administration of justice and political pressures in western democracies. For more than a decade, governments in the West have felt acute pressure to make the criminal justice system more relevant, more transparent and more accountable. The 'crisis of confidence', particularly in judges and sentencing, has led to a range of high profile policy announcements seeking to 'modernise' the criminal justice system. This trend was most pronounced in the United Kingdom in the period from around 1998 to 2004 under the Blair government and led to an outpouring of analyses, investigations and reforms aimed at improving confidence in the criminal justice system. This paper reviews some of these developments but also takes a closer look at the nature of public confidence in the criminal justice system in Australia. Using the results of the latest Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, aspects of public confidence are examined with a particular focus on the evaporation of confidence in the criminal justice system from police, through courts to corrections. This 'evaporation effect' has been observed in all countries where confidence in various aspects of the criminal justice system has been studied.

Adam Tomison

Director

Public confidence is fundamental to the operation of the criminal justice system. The system depends on the participation of victims and members of the public who participate as witnesses and jurors. Low levels of public confidence also leads to disrespect and dissatisfaction with those responsible for administering the system. The political debate surrounding dissatisfaction has become well established over the past decade. Given the centrality of public confidence, it is not surprising there has been intense interest in measuring, understanding and addressing this phenomenon.

This paper examines how confidence in the criminal justice system needs to be understood as a multidimensional construct with distinct differences in levels of confidence between the three major components of the system - police, courts and corrections. Public confidence declines from the police, to courts to prisons, suggesting the public views each component individually, rather than the criminal justice system as a whole. It is argued that the best way to improve confidence in these criminal justice institutions is to enhance the perception that the institution is acting on behalf of citizens and representing their interests.

International and Australian research

Roberts (2007) provided an international comparison of confidence levels in the criminal justice system with Australia recording a rating of 35 percent of citizens indicating a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the system, comparing unfavourably with similar western countries. For example, the figure was 57 percent in Canada and 49 percent in the United Kingdom. Overall, Australia was ranked 27 out of the 36 countries included, with levels of confidence ranging from a high of 79 percent in Denmark to a low of 1 9 percent in Lithuania.

Recent Australian research (Jones et al. 2008) examined public confidence in the criminal justice system in New South Wales. This telephone survey asked 2,002 members of the public about their level of confidence in six aspects of the criminal justice system. The proportion who were fairly or very confident ranged from 30 percent (confidence in criminal justice system to deal with cases promptly) to 75 percent (confidence in the criminal justice system to respect the rights of the accused). However, the survey did not differentiate between different institutions within the criminal justice system.

Research in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia has also examined levels of confidence in components of the criminal justice system. Research conducted by the Canadian government (Ipsos-Reid 2002 cited in Roberts 2007) depicted a systematic decline in levels of confidence, from the national police (88%), state police (82%), supreme court (78%), local court (62%) to the prison system (49%) and finally the parole system (36%). …