The 2007 National Justice Survey: Tackling Crime and Public Confidence

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to the development of the National Justice Survey questionnaire:

  • Dr. Albert Currie
  • Nicole Crutcher
  • Allison Millar
  • Charles Stanfield
  • Valerie Howe
  • Sergey Vershinin
  • Dr. Kuan Li

In addition, we would like to acknowledge the contributions of Marke Kilke and Steven Knight for reviewing the questionnaire and Stephen Mihorean, Dr. Kwing Hung, Nicole Crutcher, Dr. Albert Currie, Suzanne Wallace-Capretta and Naomi Giff-MacKinnon for reviewing this report.

Finally, we would like to express our appreciation for the professionalism and contributions of Derek Leebosh and the entire team at Environics for their data collection efforts.

Executive Summary

Introduction

Understanding public opinion is a complex area of research, particularly when examining attitudes towards the criminal justice system. Previous research has shown that few Canadians are well versed in the technical and legal aspects of sentencing policy, for example, yet most continue to hold relatively strong and oftentimes polarised views on the subject. In addition, there is a tendency within public opinion research to overly simplify criminal justice system issues using dichotomous concepts such as "too harsh" or "too lenient". Nonetheless, public opinion research can often have a strong influence on criminal justice policy. As well, governments are relying more and more on public opinion as a valid tool to measure their performance and to track changes over time. Understanding what drives public opinion, therefore, is an important task.

The goal of the 2007 National Justice Survey (NJS) was threefold. First, the NJS (2007) sought to develop an understanding of public confidence in the criminal justice system in general, and in specific components of the justice system (e.g., police, courts). Second, the NJS (2007) was designed to solicit public attitudes towards major criminal justice policies. Given the federal government’s current focus on "Tackling Crime", opinion was sought on some of the more topical criminal justice policies being debated within the political landscape, such as mandatory minimum penalties, conditional sentences, and illegal drugs. The questions were essentially developed based upon the current priorities within the Department of Justice, as well as discussions within Parliamentary Committees and Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working-Groups. Thirdly, the questions within the NJS (2007) were structured in order to better understand the factors that drive public confidence in the criminal justice system, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between justice policy and confidence.

Method

The 2007 National Justice Survey was a household telephone survey of 4,502 Canadians over the age of 18 years. The survey was conducted between February 27 and March 29, 2007 in all ten provinces using a random digit dialling method. On average, interviews were approximately 31 minutes in length. In order to randomly select a single respondent in multi-person households, the individual with the next upcoming birthday was selected.

The effective response rate for this survey was 9%, which, although low, is relatively consistent with industry norms for a random digit dialling survey. The response rate was calculated as the number of responding participants (i.e., completed interviews, disqualifications and over-quota participants), divided by the number of unresolved numbers (i.e., busy signals, no answer) plus non-responding households or individuals (i.e., refused to participate, language barrier, missed call-backs) plus responding participants.

The sample in each province was intentionally disproportionate to the provincial populations in order to ensure adequate sample sizes at a regional level for analytical purposes. Overall, the margin of error was +/- 1.5% (19 times out of twenty).

Results

It is clear that pubic confidence in the criminal justice system in Canada is relatively low. If we compare confidence in the justice system to confidence in other public systems, such as health and education, there is a clear difference. Given that the health care system is often a top priority for Canadians, it is interesting that the justice system is rated much lower. Confidence decreases as one moves through the criminal justice process from arrest (i.e., police) to trial and sentencing (i.e., courts and corrections) and ultimately to release (i.e., parole).

Canadians have relatively high confidence that the police will solve crimes, that the courts will convict the right individuals, and that the prison system will prevent them from escaping. The central concern expressed by Canadians is that sentences may not always be appropriate (either in quantum or in design) and that the prison system does not "rehabilitate" offenders. Not surprisingly then, the public also believes that the parole system is therefore releasing the wrong offenders and that these offenders will likely re-offend. Thus, it is likely that the expressed lack of confidence is centred mostly around sentencing practices.

A high proportion of Canadians do not have confidence in the official criminal justice statistics, such as the parole release rate.

Two-thirds of Canadians support the current government’s approach to criminal justice issues which involve increasing police presence, strengthening sentencing laws, and trying to prevent youth drug and gang involvement.

Canadians indicated that the three most important goals of sentencing should be repairing the harm caused by the crime, making the offender take responsibility for his or her actions (i.e., accountability) and rehabilitating the offender in order to prevent him or her from committing another offence. When asked to select the most important, the same three objectives were again chosen, although rehabilitation was identified as the most important.

Most Canadians support tougher penalties for serious drug offenders (e.g., traffickers and manufacturers) but more than half also support treatment programs and prevention programs as approaches.

With regards to particular criminal justice policies, the seriousness of the crime often influences how the public will respond. Canadians are supportive of the idea that those convicted of serious violent crimes (e.g., sexual assault, murder, robbery) should be required to submit a DNA sample to aid in past and future criminal investigations. This level of support is not maintained, however, for less serious crimes. The public also supports the use of bail credits at sentencing, but again this was tempered by the seriousness of the crime. The support is much lower when the crime is serious in nature. Support for mandatory minimum penalties is directly related to the seriousness of the crime while support for conditional sentences is inversely related to seriousness.

There is a core group of Canadians that support conditional sentences regardless of the nature of the offence. On the other hand, there is also a core group of Canadians that support mandatory minimum penalties even for less serious offences. If one understands conditional sentences and MMPs as conflicting sentencing practices (since by nature an MMP would preclude the use of a conditional sentence), then Canadians generally fall into three clear groups. First, there is a quarter of Canadians who appear to, in principle, support the use of non-custodial sentencing options in response to criminal behaviour, even for very serious offences. Second, there is another quarter of Canadians who, again in principle, appear to support use of custody as a response to crime, even for minor offending. Lastly, there is a third group, representing the remaining half of Canadians, who waiver between these two positions depending on the circumstances of the crime and the offender.

Finally, the strongest predictor of public confidence is one’s perception of the accuracy of official justice statistics (e.g., parole granting rates). Those who trust official statistics typically express higher levels of confidence than those who do not trust official statistics. In addition, those who believe crime has increased are much less likely to have confidence in the criminal justice system.

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