Connecting the public and the criminal justice system
What is the connection between the public and the criminal justice system? Discover how the two overlap and influence one another.

What is the connection between the public and the criminal justice system? In many ways, individuals who partake in criminal behavior are outcasts from the general. Yet, no matter how we box these individuals or push them far back in our review mirror, the public and the criminal justice system overlap significantly.

connection between public and criminal justice system

Consider that:

  • Public views shape policies and laws that guide criminal justice processes. As well as the acceptance of formerly incarcerated people who reenter society after serving time. 
  • The jury system directly implicates the sentencing of specific individuals placed on trial, holding their future (and the future of their loved ones) in their hands. 
  • Tax money is used to fund criminal justice systems — from police salaries and governmental departments charged with protecting public safety to corrections expenditures and court expenditures. 

These are three simple, everyday ways the public connects with the criminal justice system.

The Disconnect Between the Public and the Criminal Justice System

Various narratives about the criminal justice system are circulating in the public realm, from police giving up on all but the most serious crimes to prisons being beyond capacity.

While these stories largely hold truth and can be applied around the world, there is a big lesson that can be learned from public policy failure and the impact that it has on the community’s trust in the criminal justice system.

Prejudice and judgement

The disconnect is more apparent when comparing certain communities, bringing racial and ethnic tension to the forefront. For example, a 2015 Washington Post shared that “Black teens who commit a few crimes go to jail as often as white teens who commit dozens.”

Similar disconnect parallels can be drawn between disabled people, including those with learning disabilities, brain injuries, and mental health conditions.

By isolating those “prone” to criminal behavior, it’s easier for opposing groups within the community to isolate themselves from the system and harbor judgemental attitudes.

The Prosecutor

I've recently finished reading The Prosecutor, an autobiography by Nazir Afzal, a British solicitor and former prosecutor within the Crown Prosecution Services. Nazir presents a very interesting approach to managing crime, and it all comes back to connecting with the community.

The idea of involving the community in my work had always been a core belief of mine, and each case I dealt with only strengthened this: if the public didn’t know we were there, if they didn’t know what we were doing and why, then what was the point? As a prosecutor, I needed to be more of an activist, not just another bureaucrat.
- Nazir Afzal

I highly recommend reading Nazir Afzal’s book to gain insight into the challenges and processes faced by players in the criminal justice system — and how the civilian community plays a larger role than anticipated.

Balancing second chances and public safety

Daily Press recently shared a story about Democrats and Republicans bumping heads on significant criminal justice reforms, namely a rehabilitation and reentry bill package. A main component of the proposed package is the “second look” bill, which allows sentencing hearings 10 years into an inmate’s term, regardless of the crime.

As the author writes, “The goal of the proposed legislation is laudable. But its potential impact on public safety is so great it should not be rammed through on a one-party vote without debate.”

While the article is United States-focused, the lesson of political collaboration is a universal one. As the column states, “The ultimate goal should be to create a corrections system that actually corrects behavior while protecting the public from harm.”

political collaboration

Social reintegration and public safety

UNODC has published an introductory handbook on the prevention of recidivism and the social reintegration of offenders, where they distinguish the link between social reintegration and public safety. The handbook highlights the social and economic costs of failed reintegration as a major concern for policymakers, especially in low- and middle-income countries. However, it’s important to remember the necessity of reintegration programs for public safety and the socioeconomic development of countries.

So, how does the public feel about reentry? A recent report reveals that public members appear open and supportive of utilizing “second chance” mechanisms in various contexts, especially among offenders serving long-term prison sentences. While levels of support vary by race, gender, and age, it seems the cost of incarceration to taxpayers is a significant motivation for using second-chance mechanisms. As the paper says, “The USA’s current reliance on long-term prison sentences mounts incredible human and monetary costs that are disproportionate to their effects on crime rates and public safety.”

There are alternatives to long-term prison sentences that balance public safety and the proper reintegration of offenders. The Commission of Effective Criminal Sanctions has presented a few key areas to consider.

  • Non-incarceration community solutions that prevent the creation of a conviction record for less serious offenders
  • Enhanced parole and probation oversight 
  • Granting occupational licenses to individuals with past convictions 
  • Revise access to and use of criminal background data for non-law enforcement purposes 
  • Legal assistance concerning secondary repercussions 
  • Training in the exercise of discretion 

How can the public community help with reintegration

Reintegration of former offenders demands the community's assistance to succeed. By taking local ownership of the reintegration process, it can benefit both returnees and the community. These community-based reintegration projects range from collective returnees and new community-based projects to including returnees in existing community-based projects.

Community-level initiatives

Community-level initiatives should focus on short- and medium-term barriers to reintegration, foster dialogue and social cohesion, support the resilience of returnees, and support the longer-term sustainability of intervention outcomes.

When the community collectively works to combat stigmatization, it empowers former offenders to build meaningful connections and strengthen their social networks.

Community leaders

Community leaders, in particular, play a significant role in the reintegration of ex-prisoners. Depending on the country, these community leaders may include traditional and religious leaders as well as local civil society organizations. By nurturing strong ties to the community, these community leaders play a role in mediating between former offenders and the community.

General public

While criminal justice lands squarely in the laps of the authorities, the public can still play a valuable role in encouraging reintegration and improving the results of criminal justice efforts.

Consider the following steps as a starting point:

  • Engage with law enforcement by volunteering, offering constructive feedback on local authorities, participating in law enforcement surveys, and staying updated with local police departments on social media. 
  • Participate in neighborhood watch and attend community meetings. 
  • Provide informal social control and services that reduce the likelihood of juvenile criminal behavior.  
  • Cooperate with fellow community members to create a safe space for vulnerable individuals. 

point to ponder community initiatives

Are there any other ways that the community can positively contribute to criminal justice and reform?