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Understanding public priorities for criminal justice

How do people experience the justice system and what are their priorities for change?

Understanding public views

Justice systems may seem to have some straightforward goals in the form of crime reduction and maintaining the rule of law. But there are numerous competing objectives and priorities for criminal justice agencies. Finding the right balance between these different goals requires not only the professional judgment of leadership and evidence to support any changes but also addressing the question of values. And because of this, defining the goals of any justice system is an inherently political choice that should be informed by public preferences.

Unfortunately, public views of crime and criminal justice are notoriously hard to measure. As part of a study Deloitte is conducting on this topic, we have found that there is reasonable literature from many countries on public sentiment, but surveys and other tools need to be interpreted discerningly.

The core problem is that few members of the public have direct exposure to the criminal justice system, even if it touches people’s lives in occasional and dramatic ways. In most of our focus countries, at most a third to a half of people have attended a court hearing (usually as a jury member, witness, or supporting a friend or family member).1 Fewer have been arrested or punished by the state—though it is currently estimated that a third of UK men have a caution or conviction, and 8% of the US population have a felony conviction.2

As a result, public knowledge of criminal justice system policy and practice is highly imperfect, and emotive issues such as crime are known to distort perceptions.3 Many people overestimate the extent to which crime is rising, think sentences for serious offences are far more lenient than they actually are, and misjudge the psychological impact of being involved in a court hearing or experiencing prison or parole restrictions.4

How to gather citizen input

While survey-based tools are often a poor route into discerning true public preferences, they can have value when it comes to understanding how well services are working for different groups. Feedback on individual experiences of services is still not routinely collected. Very few jurisdictions are conducting robust research on the experiences of users now that court hearings are increasingly held remotely as a result of COVID-19.5 Some agencies are, however, trying to build up a richer picture of user experiences. Many police forces now collect real-time feedback on service quality for those handling emergency and non-emergency enquiries and some collect digital public input on service priorities through community “pop ups.”Sentiment analysis is also a useful tool being deployed to support policy and practice decisions. And an upcoming article from Deloitte’s Future of Justice program shares numerous examples of criminal justice agencies deploying behavioral science to support improved outcomes.

While surveys can be a valuable tool in understanding public sentiment, they struggle to uncover the common will of citizens on contentious issues such the aims of a justice system. Deliberative approaches, which involve citizens in a process to understand and guide critical criminal justice trade-offs, can be a more productive approach. Ireland’s citizen assembly and constitutional convention models were used to inform the debate and referenda on Ireland’s laws on same sex marriage and abortion in 2015 and 2018.7 These approaches select citizens at random (and in the constitutional convention model, a third are politicians) to receive and debate information on both sides of the debate and report their conclusions publicly (via the press)—in these cases to inform a national public vote. Similar approaches could be used for contentious justice debates such as the use of the death penalty, sentencing generally, or the justice system’s rights to access private information that could potentially help detect crime.

In the United Kingdom, the Police Foundation has used smaller scale deliberative processes to understand public views on policing priorities.8 They found that while surveys asking what the public want the police to focus on tend to find a preponderance of interest in the misdemeanors and minor crimes that touch more people (e.g., speeding, dog fouling), a deliberative approach shows that the public do want police to prioritize resources on preventing and responding to violence and sexual offences.9

What does the public want? Recurring themes from feedback

Building effective ways of engaging the public in dialogue relating to public priorities and building rich—and ideally real-time—feedback on service user experience is needed by many criminal justice systems internationally. Feedback creates opportunities for learning and encourages new approaches to designing services around the needs of victims, witnesses, and those seeking to desist from crime. It can also provide motivation for staff, who often hear little about the impact of their excellent service for the public. Effective feedback can—and often does—expose fundamental issues in the design of criminal justice.

Existing research consistently shows that the criminal justice system is experienced as a “black box” by many of its occasional participants. The system can feel incomprehensible and, in its worst instances, arbitrary. Both people who’ve been arrested and their families often have no idea what to expect after they are arrested. Victims, too, report huge uncertainty and a lack of support for navigating court proceedings. Expectations in terms of timeliness, use of digital technologies for communication, and tailoring of services to suit different needs (for example, disabilities or language barriers) are often unmet.

Overall, those who experience our justice systems are often less than impressed after their experience.10 Research is sparse, but in general it appears that initial contact of victims and witnesses with the justice system is more positive, but then erodes rapidly over time as investigations and prosecutions progress or collapse. Historic research on California’s court system shows that satisfaction drops in all groups involved in cases except for jurors—and victims are generally least satisfied by the process.11 A recent study of UK court users showed that 2 in 10 people who experienced court processes were less impressed with the justice system after experiencing it.12  Only 21% involved felt the court process was efficient and 18% felt their opinions or needs were taken into consideration. Research in Australia and elsewhere exposes that to victims of sexual offences, the criminal justice process itself can be traumatizing.13 As one victim put it, “that whole process just felt like I was the one on trial, and I was the one who was being humiliated and made to look like I had done the wrong thing, as opposed to being the victim of a crime.”14 Matters are made worse by the fact that the time from reports of crimes to completion of trials are, in many places, increasing.15

Of course, there is huge variation in service standards across and within countries that are involved in our project. And yet even a superficial survey of victim and witness satisfaction with criminal justice services shows results that would never be tolerated in other areas of public service with which the general public has more regular contact.

But there is clear potential to overcome these problems. Several jurisdictions and agencies are increasingly redesigning services around citizens. Enhanced victim support services are also showing positive results.16 Court delays vary wildly across and within countries—providing natural variations we can learn from.17 New techniques and technologies that allow governments to understand public views and experiences can bring increasing focus on the most urgent problems within a justice system.

We would like to thank Tom Gash, Deloitte Strategic Adviser and Andi Druga, Manager, Deloitte Consulting Canada for their contribution to this blog.

1 For example, UK research shows a third or more of the population has been to court, most as jury members (14%), as witnesses (12%) or to support friend or family (11%).

2 Data about US felony conviction rates can be found here, while rates of UK cautions and convictions can be found here.

3 There is a broad literature on moral reasoning which emphasizes that people often struggle to explain reasons for their moral views (Haidt 2001), perhaps because of conflict between immediately formed and deliberated views (Greene 2014) and because of the way that context profoundly influences moral judgements (Sneddon 2007)

4 For an account of popular crime ‘myths’ see T. Gash, Criminal: The Truth about Why People Do Bad Things, Penguin 2017

5 There has, however, been a UK rapid review of participant experience of remote hearings in civil cases

6 We are aware of police services in the UK and Canada who have these capabilities, though they are not in place everywhere


8 A. Higgins, Policing and the Public, Police Foundation, 2017,

9 A. Higgins, Policing and the Public, Police Foundation, 2017,

10 For example, research from US and Canada show that victim satisfaction rates with the justice system are low, sometimes merely half, potentially leading them to not use the justice system if victimized again.


12 The scale and length of pre-trial detention is just one measure of timeliness in the criminal justice system, and it is increasing in many places across the globe.


14 For example, in NSW Australia in 2017-18 under two thirds of criminal cases were resolved by district courts within 12 months compared to 90% in Queensland and Victoria: