Examining Defendant Perceptions of Fairness in the Courtroom

Article excerpt

Public confidence in the criminal justice system is remarkably low when compared with other institutions. Scholars attribute this to a variety of factors, some of which are largely out of the control of the system itself. These include rising public expectations, declining trust in government in general, and inaccurate information about the workings of the criminal justice system.1

How can public confidence injustice be improved? One approach is to ensure that criminal defendants feel they are being treated fairly. If those most affected by the workings of the criminal justice system come out believing that the system treated them fairly, that may help to convey a broader public message.

Citizens generally hold favorable views toward institutions that are perceived as unbiased, while holding negative views of those that are believed to be partisan or discriminatory.2 Not only can a focus on fairness improve public confidence, but research has shown that, as confidence in the criminal justice system grows, law-abiding behavior increases.5 This means that a fair process has the potential both to create generalized benefits via improved public confidence and specific benefits through the improved compliance of the defendants who experience the process.

Recognizing this, the Center for Court Innovation sought to examine defendant perceptions of fairness in two types of criminal courts: a traditional "downtown" court located in a large urban metropolis, and an experimental "community court" located in a smaller and geographically distinctive urban neighborhood. The rationale for implementing the study in two sites was to test the potential of the community court model to improve upon existing defendant perceptions.

Community courts are explicitly interested in improving public confidence in the criminal justice system.4 They seek to accomplish this by responding to community concerns, while simultaneously addressing the service and treatment needs of individual defendants.5 Community courts include a far greater range of sentencing options than are commonly available in traditional courts. These may include community service, substance abuse treatment, job readiness or G.E.D. classes, and onsite social services. The underlying assumption is that by emphasizing alternatives to incarceration and providing access to needed services, the community court will elicit more of a sense among defendants that the court is responsive to their individual situations.

Since most community courts deal widi misdemeanor defendants who would otherwise receive relatively short jail sentences, fines, or sentences involving no real conditions at all, threats of long-term punishment are not a realistic option for securing compliance with court mandates or inducing future law-abiding behavior. As a result, community courts have a strong incentive to promote voluntary compliance with court mandates, secured by enhancing defendant trust in the court's legitimacy. Whether community courts succeed in their efforts remains an empirical question, never before examined. The results of such an evaluation are important not just for community courts, but for conventional criminal courts as well, which might look to adopt successful strategies from experimental community courts.

The survey

Defendants who were seen at either the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a community court in Brooklyn, New York, or the traditional court in summer 2005 took part in a survey about their perceptions of the treatment they received. The survey evaluated the effects of court location (Red Hook or die traditional court) , defendant background (race, ethnicity, sex, and socioeconomic status) , the outcome of their current court case, how defendants were treated in court, and the stage of their case at the time of the survey (arraignment or subsequent court appearance). The total number of surveys completed was 398, with 202 (51 percent) conducted at Red Hook and 196 (49 percent) conducted at the traditional court. …