The Case for Procedural Justice: Fairness as a Crime Prevention Tool

photo of crime prevention logoToday's criminal justice leaders have a number of promising and evidence-based practices to draw upon when implementing new public safety efforts. CompStat and hot spot policing have revolutionized the way data is used in crime prevention. Public health approaches to community violence have helped to reduce shootings and homicides. And community policing and other community collaborations have reshaped how law enforcement organizations interact with the neighborhoods they serve.

Among these reforms is a frequently practiced but often overlooked approach that has increasingly been identified by researchers as an evidence-based and cost-effective way to reduce crime: procedural justice. Procedural justice (sometimes called procedural fairness) describes the idea that how individuals regard the justice system is tied more to the perceived fairness of the process and how they were treated rather than to the perceived fairness of the outcome. In other words, even someone who receives a traffic ticket or “loses” his case in court will rate the system favorably if he feels that the outcome is arrived at fairly.

photo of Tom TylerLeading researchers on this topic, including Professor Tom Tyler of Yale Law School, have identified several critical dimensions of procedural fairness: (1) voice (the perception that your side of the story has been heard); (2) respect (perception that system players treat you with dignity and respect); (3) neutrality (perception that the decision-making process is unbiased and trustworthy); (4) understanding (comprehension of the process and how decisions are made); and (5) helpfulness (perception that system players are interested in your personal situation to the extent that the law allows).1

Underlying procedural justice is the idea that the criminal justice system must constantly be demonstrating its legitimacy to the public it serves. If the public ceases to view its justice system as legitimate, dire consequences ensue. Put simply, people are more likely to comply with the law and cooperate with law enforcement efforts when they feel the system and its actors are legitimate. For example, a recent study examined the impact of police officers' use of a procedural justice script during randomized breath test checkpoints—with language geared toward conveying key elements such as decision-making neutrality, voice, and respect.2 Would drivers' perceptions of fairness and compliance with law enforcement directives improve? The script explained the officer's motives for conducting the stop, gave the driver an opportunity to suggest other crime prevention tactics, and conveyed respect by addressing the drivers at eye level and thanking them for their time. In fact, drivers who participated in the study were more likely than the control group to report satisfaction with the interaction and to be compliant with police orders. Indeed, these findings are comparable to those seen in a range of other criminal justice settings, from courts to corrections to re-entry.

Notions of fairness and respect are relatively uncontroversial aims for the criminal justice system, but implementing practices that support these ends can be challenging. The Center for Court Innovation—in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Judicial College—has spent the past two years developing and piloting a curriculum to help judges and other court players to translate the precepts of procedural justice into daily practice. The initiative has relied upon the expertise of judges, court administrators, legal theorists, and communications experts to develop and test improved communication strategies and create practical “how to” recommendations for court staff. To date, project activities have included the convening of a national working group, the development and piloting of a one-day training, issuing a national solicitation for additional training sites, and the development of an online learning system based on the curriculum.

The unfortunate reality is that court proceedings—like other stages in the criminal justice process—can be confounding and dehumanizing experiences. Courtroom actors do not deliberately attempt to cause confusion or undermine confidence in the system, of course—they are simply trying to communicate complex, technical information as quickly as possible. There are numerous real-world obstacles to effective communication, including overwhelming caseloads and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity among court participants.3 Similar challenges exist during routine traffic stops, probation intake sessions, parole board hearings—the list goes on and on.

photo of gavel and measuring standProcedural justice provides a platform to begin addressing some of these shortcomings. In courts, among other things, this takes the form of rethinking how courtroom rules are posted, explained, and enforced, or how court clerk or court officers provide information while court is in session.

There are countless analogs from the court environment that are applicable to other justice system players, including law enforcement. Below are a few strategies for implementation that can be applied by police departments to enhance procedural justice:

  • Humanize the experience: Appearing approachable and accessible is a key component of procedural justice. When interviewing suspects or witnesses, make eye contact and use body language to convey respect. Thank citizens for their cooperation with the process as a means of yielding increased cooperation in the future.
  • Explain what you're doing and why: For many individuals, a routine traffic stop or other interaction with law enforcement can be a traumatic event. The legal jargon and procedures (familiar to practitioners in the field) can be confusing and intimidating to the average person. Whenever possible, use simple terms to explain your actions, the legal and/or practical reasons for doing so, and any consequences they may have for the person. For example, when issuing a summons, clearly explain the process for appearing in court to resolve the matter—including providing directions to the courthouse, if and how a lawyer will be provided, and whether there are options to resolve the matter by mail or online. These strategies can help promote compliance.
  • Create opportunities for individuals to be heard: Giving people an opportunity to speak and have their concerns heard can add a few extra minutes to the average interaction, but it is time well spent. Research shows that having your voice heard increases perceptions of fairness, even when the person is told that his views will not influence the ultimate decision or outcome. Consider how to maximize the citizens' voice in contexts where it may be limited, such as traffic and street stops or walk-in inquiries.
  • Consider environmental factors: Criminal justice facilities—like many government buildings—can be difficult to navigate for those unfamiliar with their halls. As an exercise, try to examine your facility with fresh eyes from the perspective of a new user. In high-traffic areas, ensure that building rules and instructions for getting assistance are clearly posted, easy to read, and provided in commonly spoken languages other than English, if necessary.
  • Use research to show the value of procedural justice: As with any new approach, there will be skeptics, but the research that supports the concept is compelling. Providing colleagues with the research on the impact of procedural fairness can offer a concrete and focused foundation for trainings and other implementation efforts, helping to counteract knee-jerk skepticism.

Law enforcement professionals are typically the first point of contact for people processed through the justice system. Procedural justice strategies like the ones listed above—when delivered early in the process—can help shape an individual's perception of the system and improve compliance. With budget cuts and the resulting pressure on the justice system to do more with less, procedural justice offers an evidence-based approach that can help law enforcement agencies—as well as the system as a whole—enhance legitimacy and reduce crime: the proverbial win-win.

Emily Gold
Deputy Director of Planning and Development at the Center for Court Innovation

In collaboration with Melissa Bradley
COPS Office

1 T. R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990). See also M.S. Frazer, The Impact of the Community Court Model on Defendant Perceptions of Fairness: A Case Study at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. (New York: Center for Court Innovation, 2006).
2 L. Mazerolle, S. Bennett, E. Antrobus, and E. Eggins, “Procedural justice, routine encounters and citizen perceptions of police: main findings from the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET),” Journal of Experimental Criminology 8 (2012): 343 –367.
3 T. R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990). See also M.S. Frazer, The Impact of the Community Court Model on Defendant Perceptions of Fairness: A Case Study at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. (New York: Center for Court Innovation, 2006).

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Fairness as a Crime Prevention Tool | The Importance of Legitimacy in Hot Spots Policing | The Importance of Procedural Justice | Procedural Justice: High Expectations | Policing and Perceptions of Fairness