Punishing Processes in Youth Court: Procedural Justice, Court Atmosphere and Youths' Views of the Legitimacy of the Justice System

Article excerpt

[T]hese courts are chaotic and confusing ... The courtrooms are crowded, chambers are dingy ... the depressing air about the courtrooms carries over to the mood of the people who populate them.

--Malcolm Feeley, The Process Is the Punishment

"Show me your hands!" ordered the presiding Justice of the Peace.

The startled youth held his hands up, as if he was being arrested. The court party (Justice of the Peace, Court Clerk, etc.) and others in the body of the court laughed at the youth. "Just take your hands out of your pockets, son," the Justice of the Peace ordered, still laughing. The male accused blushed and looked at the floor.

--Field Notes, 27 October 2008

Canadian society should have a youth criminal justice system that commands respect.

--Preamble, Youth Criminal Justice Act

The importance of procedural justice for the public's view of the legitimacy of law, government, police, courts and corrections is well established in the research literature (see Tyler 2003 for a detailed review). If people believe rights will be respected, concerns will be heard, and people will be treated with dignity and respect, they are more likely to give positive evaluations of the justice system. This finding holds both for those with and for those without direct court contact but appears to be strongest for those who have had contact (Tyler 2003). In addition to procedural justice, however, other aspects of the court experience--for example, delays, confusion in court, and unprofessional behaviour--may also be related to views of the justice system, especially for defendants.

In what is likely still the most detailed documentation to date of the functioning of lower (adult) courts, Feeley (1979) argues that

   [t]hese courts are chaotic and confusing ... The courtrooms are
   crowded, chambers are dingy ... [T]he depressing air about the
   courtrooms carries over to the mood of the people who populate them
   ... [T]he impressions they form are likely to color their view of
   the entire justice system. Whatever majesty there is in the law may
   depend heavily on these encounters. (3-4, 5)

To date, the vast majority of the research has focused on the effect of perceived fair treatment (procedural justice) on the views of the justice system espoused by members of the public or those with some sort of contact with the courts (see, e.g., Casper, Tyler, and Fisher 1989; Fagan and Tyler 2005; Piquero, Fagan, Mulvey, Steinberg, and Odgers 2005; Sprott and Greene 2010; Tyler 2001; 2003; Tyler and Huo 2002; Tyler and Waslak 2004). However, in addition to the direct impact of fair treatment of those interacting with court employees, anyone who has observed social institutions knows that the overall atmosphere of the institution can also be important. In this study, we were interested in examining whether the broader court-room atmosphere, which, for the most part, was independent of the way an accused youth was personally treated by the courts, was related to his/her evaluations of the justice system.

Courts, like all complex organizations, vary across place and time. Some courts--for example, many superior courts in Canada--appear to be well-run institutions whose atmosphere is commensurate with the gravity of the issues being decided. On the other hand, the lower (adult) courts in Canada have been described by Martin Friedland (2007) as "[operating] with neither dignity nor efficiency, yet both these qualities are essential to any well-conceived system of justice" (125). Friedland, in his 1968 report (cited in Friedland 2007) goes on to point out that "A certain degree of dignity is necessary to promote respect for the law and the administration of justice" (Friedland 2007: 235). Although Feeley (1979) and Friedland (2007) are talking about adult courts, the same issues--efficiency, dignity--are obviously also important for youth courts. …