Fair treatment of people in conflict with the law is both right and gets results

Posted by:

One of the current trends in criminal justice thinking is what’s known as procedural justice.  One of its leading advocates American Professor Tom Tyler is in the UK this week to talk about the way the police and courts deal with people in reaching a decision about them may produce consequences at least as important as the nature of the decisions they reach. Even if the outcome is negative, people who feel they have been treated fairly in their dealings with the authorities rate those authorities as more legitimate than those whose encounters have been unsatisfactory.

In turn, those who accept authority are more likely to obey the law and in the case of those who do not are more likely to comply with court orders, pay fines and meet other obligations. They are also it seems more likely to desist from crime.

The latest round of the European Social Survey has collected data about trust in justice in 20 countries. The Nordic countries are most trusting of their police and courts (although the data was collected before the Breivik massacre in which the police have admitted serious shortcomings).  Eastern and some Southern European countries tend to be less trusting of their justice institutions. Two thirds of Russians think that the police make fair and impartial decisions “not at all or not very often” compared to one in ten Danes. The UK is somewhere in the middle of the league tables. More than half of Portuguese think that ethnic minorities face discrimination in the courts compared to just over a quarter in the Netherlands and one in five from Estonia.

Addressing corruption, discrimination and rights violations must be a clear priority for criminal justice agencies. But even where progress is made, increased legitimacy is not guaranteed. In general, US police forces have become increasingly professional since the Rodney King disaster but reductions in violence and corruption have not led to increased trust.  People tend to feel they have been treated fairly if they are shown respect, can have their say and perceive the police or courts to be neutral and trustworthy.    In the US, UK and other countries far too many people particularly young people from minority ethnic groups do not have these experiences.

In prisons around the world, procedural justice is often in short supply. In the European region at least the Council of Europe’s new Code of Ethics provides a basis for policies on the recruitment, training and management of prison staff. While conditions in prisons in many other parts of the world are significantly less favourable than in Europe, the approach of prison staff  everywhere should include the key principles in the Code. Prison staff should be accountable for their actions, show integrity, respect human dignity, offer care and assistance and cooperate with other agencies – all carried out with fairness, impartiality and non discrimination.

Not only is this the right thing for prison staff to do, procedural justice suggests it produces important pay offs in terms of how prisoners comply while in prison and also how they behave when released.



Add a Comment