The 2007 National Justice Survey: Tackling Crime and Public Confidence

4. Discussion

While the data from the National Justice Survey has answered a number of research questions with regards to public opinion, it has also raised a number of new research questions. 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). Previous research, such as the General Social Survey on Victimization conducted by Statistics Canada, has also shown the same pattern. 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. Canadians simply do not want offenders to commit another offence. Therefore, it is likely that the sentencing practices that prevent future crime will be the most popular approaches.

A high proportion of Canadians do not have confidence in the official criminal justice statistics, such as the parole release rate. While other measures (e.g., the crime rate) are subject to methodological issues, such as reporting biases, the number of paroled offenders each year reported by the National Parole Board is unquestionably accurate. Therefore, it is important to understand why these statistics are perceived to be inaccurate.

Given the lack of confidence in some aspects of the system, it is not surprising that two-thirds of Canadians support the current government’s approach to criminal justice issues. The three major pillars of the Tackling Crime agenda are increasing police presence, strengthening sentencing laws, and trying to prevent youth drug and gang involvement. Given that Canadians generally trust police and believe that the courts are not providing appropriate sentences, it is understandable that this approach resonates with the public. However, very few respondents are actually knowledgeable about the Tackling Crime agenda. It may be that since confidence in the criminal justice system was rated generally low, a focus on addressing crime, regardless of the actual content, would be perceived positively.

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. These three objectives are often labelled as restorative justice principles. Essentially, restorative justice is an approach to crime that seeks to repair the harm caused by the crime, reintegrate the offender into the community and achieve a sense of healing for the victim and the greater community. The fact that Canadians do not think that the courts are meting out appropriate sentences, coupled with their support for hasher penalties, appears to conflict with these findings. However, it is also possible that the public believes that repairing harm, taking responsibility and engaging in rehabilitation are not necessarily lenient sentences. In fact, it may be perceived as more "punitive" than simply spending time in prison. It would be useful to develop a clearer understanding of this phenomenon with additional research.

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. Canadians therefore clearly support a balanced approach that focuses on both enforcing laws against those profiting from drug crime and trying to help people who are at risk of, or who are already dealing with, substance abuse issues. Only two in five Canadians believe that harm reduction programs (e.g., methadone clinics or needle exchange programs) would be a highly effective method of dealing with illegal drugs.

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. The one issue that is not related to seriousness, however, is who should have the burden of proof in bail proceedings. Regardless of the severity of the crime, the population is relatively evenly divided between the Crown and the accused. This may be an indicator of the importance that Canadians place on the rights of accused in criminal proceedings.

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, with regards to the predictors of public confidence, the results are quite informative and provide clear direction. 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. The most recent official crime statistics indicate that the crime rate actually decreased 3% between 2005 and 2006. Therefore, it is not surprising that those who do not trust government statistics and think that crime is actually on the rise generally have lower confidence in the justice system. However, it is important to also note that the third strongest predictor of confidence is the importance one places on government information surrounding the criminal justice system. Those who value the information provided by governments tend to have higher confidence than those who do not. It is possible that efforts to increase Canadian’s trust in official justice-related statistics will result in increases in confidence in the actual performance of the criminal justice system.

Canadians also generally indicate a lack of confidence in sentencing practices. Those who were supportive of traditionally more punitive sentencing practices (e.g., general and specific deterrence, harsher sentences) were likely to express lower confidence in the justice system than those who were supportive of traditionally non-punitive sentencing options (e.g., conditional sentences) and treatment-oriented approaches (e.g., harm reduction, rehabilitation). It is uncertain, however, if increasing the punitive nature of sentences would increase confidence in the criminal justice system. What is clear is that Canadians are unsatisfied with sentencing. Given that reparation, accountability and rehabilitation were the three most important sentencing objectives, it is not clear that increasing the "quantum" of sentences alone would be effective. Rather, it may instil more confidence among the public if the "nature" of sentences were also altered so that they more directly repaired the actual harm caused to the victim and the community, encouraged the offender to become accountable for his or her actions and created more opportunities for rehabilitation.

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