Public Perception of Crime and Justice in Canada: A Review of Opinion Polls

2. Perception of Criminal Justice Institutions

2. Perception of Criminal Justice Institutions

2.1 Confidence in the Criminal Justice System

When respondents to a 1998 National Gallup survey were asked specifically about how stringently particular institutions (police, federal government, and courts) deal with criminals, respondents continue the 30-year trend of viewing the courts as not treating offenders harshly enough (Table 6). In 1998, 72% of respondents perceive the courts as not treating criminals harshly enough, a slight decrease from 74% in 1997 and from 75% in 1996. While this percentage has declined from the 1992 high of 85%, it is still not as low as the initial 1966 rate of 43%.

Question:

I am going to read a list of some institutions which are responsible for dealing with criminals. Please indicate whether you think each one deals with criminals too harshly, not harshly enough, or in the correct manner.

Table 6: Public perception of how the courts deal with criminals: 1998
Year Not Harshly Enough Correct Manner Too Harshly No Opinion
1998 72% 19% 2% 7%
1997 74 19 1 6
1996 75 16 1 8
1995 79 16 2 4
1994 82 13 1 4
1992 85 8 3 5
1991 75 13 2 10
1986 78 12 3 7
1982 79 11 4 6
1980 63 19 4 14
1977 75 12 4 9
1975 73 13 4 10
1974 66 16 6 12
1969 58 22 2 18
1966 43 29 7 21

Source: Gallup, 1998.

The Canadian public perceives the federal government as not dealing harshly enough with criminals. In 1994, 73% of Canadians polled felt that the government does not deal harshly enough with criminals, while 15% responded that the government deals with criminals in the correct manner. The percentage of Canadians who are dissatisfied with the government's treatment has declined since 1994, to reach the current low of 63%. The percentage of Canadians who feel that the government deals with criminals in the correct manner has fluctuated since 1994, reaching its lowest percentage in 1996 (13%). It currently stands at 24%.

In 1998, 2% of Canadians continue to perceive the government as dealing too harshly with criminals. With the exception of 1995 when the percentage decreased to 1%, this rate has remained constant since 1994.

Table 7: Treatment of criminals by the Federal Government: 1998
Year Not Harshly enough Correct Manner Too Harshly No Opinion
1998 63% 24% 2% 10%
1997 68 22 2 9
1996 67 13 2 13
1995 70 20 1 8
1994 73 15 2 10

Source: Gallup, 1998.

The police continue to be viewed as treating criminals in the correct manner (59% in 1998), with 27% viewing the police as not being harsh enough (Table 8). This is similar to the 1996 and 1997 rates of 56% correct manner and 27% not harsh enough, and the 1997 53% correct manner and 32% not harsh enough.

Table 8: Treatment of criminals by the police: 1998
Year Not Harshly enough Correct Manner Too Harshly No Opinion
1998 27% 59% 9% 6%
1997 32 53 8 6
1996 27 56 10 7
1995 31 58 5 5
1994 37 48 9 6

Source: Gallup, 1998.

Similar results were generated by an Environics poll in 1998. The RCMP and local police continue to garner the highest level of public confidence as institutions within the criminal justice system, however total confidence has been decreasing since 1988 when the question was first asked. Roughly thirty percent of Canadians polled have a lot of confidence in the RCMP (34%) and local police (30%) in 1998, compared to 39% and 36% having a lot of confidence in the RCMP and local police respectively.

According to the Environics poll, a much smaller proportion of Canadians has a lot of confidence in the Supreme Court of Canada (Table 9). The current level of 20% is down eight points from 1988. Confidence in the provincial court system is even lower, with 12% of Canadians saying they have a lot of confidence in this particular institution. Support for judges (11%), and lawyers (7%) continue to drop as well. Confidence in the parole boards remains constant, albeit low at 4%. The majority of Canadians (57%) say they have little or no confidence in these institutions overall.

Question:

In general, would you say you have a lot of confidence, some confidence, little confidence or no confidence at all in each of the following…?

Table 9: Canadians' level of confidence in criminal justice institutions
  A lot Some Little None at all N/A
RCMP 34% 46% 10% 5% 5%
Supreme Court 20 49 19 7 5
Local police 30 50 11 6 3
Provincial Court 12 48 25 11 3
Judges 11 50 23 13 3
Lawyers 7 38 30 22 3
Parole Board 4 31 31 26 8

Source: Environics, 1998.

A public opinion study conducted in March 1999 by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) yields different results from those of the Environics poll. According to IRPP, 77% of Canadians polled are very or somewhat satisfied with the Supreme Court. However, respondents are divided on the proposition that the right of the Supreme Court to decide certain controversial issues should be reduced, with 42% agreeing and 43% disagreeing.

2.2 Confidence

Canadians have varying levels of confidence in the different aspects of the Canadian Criminal Justice System. The law enforcement features enjoy the most confidence, with 86% of Canadians surveyed indicating that they are somewhat confident in their local police. The RCMP also maintains high overall public confidence (83%). The courts attract lower levels of confidence with 52% of Canadians expressing at least some confidence in the courts. A great deal of uncertainty lies with the prison system, where 54% of those polled indicate a lack of faith in the system. A total of 42% were confident in this institution, but only 6% were very confident. The system that inspires the least confidence is the parole system, with 72% of polled Canadians indicating little or no trust in the workings of this system. Roughly one-third of respondents were either not very confident (37%) or not at all confident (35%) in the system.

2.3 Crime and the response of the Justice System

According to the 1998 Environics poll, there has been a slight decline in public confidence with respect to the apprehension of criminals by the criminal justice system. Increasing proportions of Canadians have a negative view of efforts by law enforcement to apprehend criminals. In 1998, 39% of Canadians viewed the rates of apprehension of criminals as increasing, down from the 1994 rate of 45%. The percentage of respondents that hold the negative view, that apprehension of criminals is decreasing, has increased from 22% in 1994 to 26% in 1998.

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