Public Perceptions of the Courts: An Examination of Attitudes toward the Treatment of Victims and Accused

By Kaukinen, Catherine; Colavecchia, Sandra | Canadian Journal of Criminology, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Public Perceptions of the Courts: An Examination of Attitudes toward the Treatment of Victims and Accused


Kaukinen, Catherine, Colavecchia, Sandra, Canadian Journal of Criminology


Introduction

Despite the decline in both property and violent crime in Canada over the last five years (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 1996), policy makers and the general public continue to express heightened concern about crime. One of the main concerns for policy makers is maintaining public support for the criminal justice system. This may become more difficult as the public continues to express dissatisfaction with various aspects of the criminal justice system. For instance recent research reveals that Canadians believe that court sentences are too lenient (Sprott and Doob 1997) and that racial minorities believe that racial discrimination is a serious problem within the criminal justice system (Wortley 1996). Research in both Canada and the United States indicates that the public has become increasingly critical of the criminal justice system (Flanagan, McGarrell, and Brown 1985; Doob and Roberts 1988). Researchers also point out that public support for more punitive sentences and support for the death penalty has increased over time (Warr 1995; Flanagan et al. 1985; Doob and Roberts 1988).

While there is evidence of public dissatisfaction with specific aspects of the criminal justice system, however, there is relatively strong support for the criminal justice system more generally (Flanagan et al. 1985). Additionally, recent research by Warr (1995) suggests that most citizens are likely to support the work of the police. That is, while the public expresses dissatisfaction with particular aspects of the criminal justice system, they continue to express "diffuse" support for the criminal justice system. This contradiction reveals the complexity of public opinion and suggests the need to explore public perceptions of the criminal justice system in ways that are both general and specific. In this study, we take a closer look at public attitudes with regard to the criminal justice system by exploring attitudes towards two specific aspects of the criminal justice system: it's ability to help victims of crime and it's ability to protect the rights of accused individuals.

Why public attitudes are important

Public perceptions of the criminal justice system are important because of the interdependency which exists between the general public and the criminal justice system. Our discussion will be limited to the interdependency between public attitudes and the courts as this is the focus of our analysis. The public is dependent on the courts in many ways. The public relies on the courts to punish guilty offenders so that others are not victimized, and also to deter other possible offenders. One implication of growing public dissatisfaction is that the public may become increasingly reluctant to rely on the courts. Public dissatisfaction may influence citizens' willingness to comply with the law and to resort to vigilante justice (Flanagan et al. 1985).

The courts are also dependent on the public's participation within criminal justice, from the public's willingness to report crimes to their willingness to serve as witnesses and jurors. Public attitudes may also influence court reform as public opinion sometimes affects legislative decision making (Flanagan et al. 1985). It has been argued that the move towards more conservative and punitive criminal justice practices in the United States, such as lengthier sentences and increased prison populations, occurred in response to increasing public dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system (Langworthy and Whitehead 1986). A similar situation may be occurring in Canada; it has been suggested that judges may impose more punitive sentences if they believe that this is what the public wants (Ouimet and Coyle 1991).

General versus specific public attitudes

Research on public attitudes in relation to the criminal justice system generally focuses on two different areas: the police and the courts. Researchers have examined a wide array of public attitudes towards the police and courts including issues of: efficacy, punitiveness, protection of society, and injustice. …

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