the public recognised the balancing acts needed between the potentially competing priorities of privacy and public safety in the use of CCTV

Criminal justice policy makers need to trust the public debating their use of technology

Posted on 05 Jul in

Phil Bowen

Public concern about crime is rising, after a long period of decline. In London, concern about crime is now on par with concerns about Brexit. Yet, despite these recent changes, public attitudes to the criminal justice system have remained consistent. Over the past decade, the public consistently perceives the criminal justice system as better at delivering a fair system than it is at delivering an effective one.

It will therefore come as no surprise to criminal justice nerds like me that our newly published opinion polling shows that the top three concerns the public have about the justice system are: “Lenient sentencing” (42%), “Rising levels of violent crime” (35%), and “High levels of reoffending” (33%). These top line findings feed into a picture of a punitive, fatalistic public, which believes that that crime is getting worse, that sentencing does not deter people from committing crime and that changing the behaviour of people who commit crime is nigh impossible.

But there is also ample research which shows that when you get a chance to explore public attitudes more deeply, the public is not only not homogenous but more than capable of subtle and nuanced view on justice. We certainly found this in our research around the use of technology in the justice system. For example, we found the public expressed support for the use of GPS tags as an alternative to short prison sentences (a traditionally liberal policy), while at the same time supporting an increase in powers for the police to use automated facial recognition surveillance (a more traditional law and order policy). We found a high degree of respect for the justice system and a desire that it retains its solemn role in society— for example, there is scepticism about the use of video conference calling for remote court appearances, because, at root, the public expects the criminal court system to look and feel serious.

In our focus groups, this sense of nuance was even more clearly demonstrated. Members of the public, some with direct experience of the justice system but most with none, discussed and reasoned out these trade-offs. For example, the members of the public recognised the balancing acts needed between the potentially competing priorities of privacy and public safety in the use of CCTV.

And yet public opinion polling and focus groups only get you so far. And we certainly got a sense that, in the end, the public expect our lawmakers in Parliament and our Government to resolve or at least balance these competing demands. So there are clear things we argue that Government must do. For example, we suggest that the Home Office develops a clear decision-making framework at the national level to ensure the ethical use of big data technology and automated facial recognition surveillance in policing and that this needs to be subject to public consultation and engagement. On court technology, we argue that the Ministry of Justice has to introduce a court bills that covers their proposals to use online and video technology in court.

Our report expresses concern that the Government seems to be actively avoiding public scrutiny in certain key technological reforms without an understanding of whether the public will ultimately wear it. That cannot be a sensible approach. The life blood of a democratic justice system is its legitimacy in the eyes of the public it serves, and if any technology threatens to undermine that, then it must be curtailed. It is the public’s justice system after all.