Crime and confidence: The benefits of trust

For criminal justice systems to function properly, the public must have confidence in the institutions of justice. In other words, they must trust that their police and justice officials are exercising legitimate authority. Efforts to build this kind of confidence could yield significant dividends for European societies. Potential benefits include increased compliance with the law and a greater sense of public security. Those are among the key propositions being explored by the ongoing research project EURO-JUSTIS (previously JUSTIS).

Co-financed by the European Union's FP7 Research programme, EURO-JUSTIS is developing tools to enable “evidence-based assessment of public trust in justice and feelings of security across Europe”. At the heart of the project is an effort to create a standardised system of scientific indicators that will measure confidence in criminal justice and public feelings of security. These questions, which are being integrated into the 30-country European Social Survey, are designed to yield indicators of trust that will serve the specific needs of European Union institutions and Member States.

Led by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King’s College London, the EURO-JUSTIS research consortium argues that fresh indicators are needed to improve crime policy in anticipation of a number of 'rapid' changes in European society. Economic change, population flux, and shifting patterns of migration and immigration are expected to impact upon European crime levels and social stability, the researchers say; in this altered socio-economic environment, maintaining commitment to the rule of law will become “a growing challenge”.

One of the main hypotheses being tested by the project is that public trust in the institutions of justice generates compliance with the law. This notion, rooted in procedural justice theory, assumes that if people regard their institutions as legitimate, they will grant those institutions the right to dictate appropriate ways to behave. The public will then obey the law because they feel that complying with the authority that enacted them is the right thing to do. If, despite that, people see the police and justice officials acting unfairly, they are likely to become cynical about the rule of law.

The researchers note that the procedural justice model (associated with the work of Tom Tyler) has been explored primarily in English-speaking cultures and has not yet been sufficiently tested in the kind of multi-cultural societies found in continental Europe. EURO-JUSTIS aims to correct this knowledge deficit, asserting that “belief in the legitimacy of formal authorities” may be a powerful mechanism for normative compliance with the law.

Data for testing the project's hypotheses are being gathered through a series of public surveys. On the basis of pilot surveys conducted in Bulgaria and the UK, the researchers have developed a series of 45 questions focusing on people’s attitudes toward the police, the courts and punitivity. These questions have now been integrated into a ‘trust in justice’ module of the European Social Survey (ESS), a critically important vehicle for collecting policy-relevant information for governments and judicial authorities in over 30 countries.

Fieldwork for the next round of the ESS is scheduled to begin in September of this year, with data expected to be ready for analysis in the autumn of 2011. The EURO-JUSTIS consortium says that with the inclusion of the project's justice module, the ESS will constitute a unique resource for monitoring public trust and perceptions of institutional legitimacy across Europe.

EURO-JUSTIS - Scientific Indicators of Confidence in Justice: Tools for Policy Assessment (duration: 1/3/2008-28/2/2011) is a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 6 – Socio-economic and scientific indicators.

See: http://www.eurojustis.eu/

Contact: Professor Mike Hough, mike.hough@kcl.ac.uk