New research by professor Carolyn Côté-Lussier

Posted on Friday, February 2, 2018

Moral concerns, not politics, guide public opinion on criminal justice reform

Research from the University of Ottawa and McGill University shows that public support for harsh criminal justice policy is better explained by moral concerns than political affiliation.

Canada is in the midst of revising the foundations of its criminal justice policies related to, among other things, the controversial practices of solitary confinement and mandatory minimum sentences. Recent high profile deaths in solitary confinement and significant court backlogs have brought these issues to the forefront at home. Abroad, the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative in the United States has focused in part on legislation to help free wrongfully convicted individuals and improving conditions for those with mental illness. Moving forward with such reforms depends in part on finding a political consensus.

A new study published in the Journal of Psychology Public Policy and Law by Carolyn Côté-Lussier of the University of Ottawa, Department of Criminology, and Jason T. Carmichael of McGill University, Department of Sociology, (both affiliated with the University of Montreal’s International Centre for Comparative Criminology), suggests that the key to gaining public support for criminal justice policies lies in addressing the public’s moral concerns. They found that issues related to unfairness can shape the way people feel about individuals accused and found guilty of crimes and how harshly they should treat them. Caring about fairness in a general sense, like caring about whether some people are treated differently than others or whether someone is denied their rights, appears to be a universal, cross-cultural moral concern that cuts across political lines. Regardless of political preferences, when people care about fairness in general, they don’t want to be harsher on individuals caught in the Criminal Justice System.

“We found that moral concerns leading to support for criminal justice policy cut across political lines, so it is not helpful to assume that politically liberal individuals and governments will necessarily lean towards more lenient policies” says Côté-Lussier. The researchers used data from three separate studies involving nearly 600 individuals living in London (U.K.) to investigate whether public support for harsh criminal justice policy is best explained by political affiliation, ideology or moral concerns.

The team confirmed that while moral and ideological concerns about authority helped explain support for harsh policies, so did deeply-rooted moral concerns about fairness.

Côté-Lussier and Carmichael’s research shows that difficult, and initially unpopular reforms that are explained and objectively assessed as being fair are likely to become accepted with time.

“The focus should be on promoting an effective, compassionate and fair justice system, rather than toughness, which is in itself a vague and problematic approach” says Carmichael.

“In short,” says Côté-Lussier “appealing to public concerns about fairness has the potential to reduce public punitiveness, irrespective of political preferences”.


The costly criminal justice system

It is estimated that Canadian criminal justice system expenditures increased by 66 percent (from $13.4 billion to $20.3 billion) between 2002 and 2012. Although the Canadian adult incarceration rate has remained relatively stable over the past fifty or so years, there have been important increases in the number of people jailed while awaiting trial — in 2016, it grew to more than half of Canada’s prison population.

“The criminal justice system is increasingly costly, both economically and in terms of its social impact. Decarceration reforms are a practical necessity, however unpopular they may initially be,” noted Carmichael.


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