Legal norms and crime control: A comparative, cross-national analysis

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics & Pol Sci
Department Name: Methodology Institute


This is a comparative, cross-national study into attitudes towards legal authorities, compliance with the law, cooperation with legal authorities, and the policing of minority and majority groups. The proposal is to address questions of deterrence, legitimacy, cooperation and compliance using a powerful new dataset that we have generated from national probability sample surveys of 30 different countries.

Our goal is to mount an ambitious cross-national empirical test of deterrence theory and procedural justice theory. Crime control policy tends to be based on the assumption - at the heart of deterrence theory - that people make instrumental or rational cost/benefit calculations when deciding whether or not to break the law. Yet, much work on the psychology of law-related behaviour suggests that (a) there is strong normative component to law-related behaviour (namely, people cooperate and comply because doing so is the right thing to do); that (b) legal institutions can influence people's normative orientations by behaving in a procedurally fair manner; and that (c) normative levers 'trump' instrumental levers, in the sense that moral principles more strongly influence behaviour than instrumental factors. The central assumption of procedural justice theory is that fair and respectful treatment of victims, witnesses, offenders and the public are the hallmark of effective justice systems.

A crucial issue for the proposed project will be the weighing of instrumental versus normative processes across multiple national contexts. Representing one of the most extensive comparative criminological studies yet undertaken, we will assess the empirical evidence for instrumental and normative modes of compliance and social regulation in diverse social, legal and political contexts. Importantly, we led a team that designed a module on 'trust in justice and the legitimacy of legal authorities' in Round 5 of the ESS. Fielded in 2010 to national probability samples of 28 countries (with data for 27 countries becoming available in March 2012) the module allows us to test deterrence theory and procedural justice theory across Europe and beyond. The data are available, and the goal of the current proposal is to draw upon new data from surveys in the US, South Africa and Japan that replicate the ESS module.

Cross-national comparison is important not only because the procedural justice model of policing originated in the US and has hitherto been primarily applied in Anglophone countries (casting significant doubt on 'universalistic' claims); it is also important because comparing across different countries will allow us to consider questions of social and political context. Do aspects of the political economy of different countries - for example the extent to which they have be subject to neo-liberal market reforms - influence the applicability and relevance of normative models of crime control? Do people living in some countries have a more instrumental orientation toward policing and crime control?

Our key issues of concern will be people's encounters with the police, trust in the fairness and effectiveness of the police, the perceived legitimacy of the police, perceived morality of criminal acts, perceived risk of sanction, compliance with the law, and preparedness to cooperate with the police and the courts. We will identify the relationships that exist between these factors, and we will do so with particular reference to the experiences of minority and immigrant groups. On the one hand, immigration is often blamed, in political discourse, for a perceive weakening in normative commitment to law and social rules. We will question the extent to which is true. On the other hand, relations between minority groups and the police, in particular, are often problematic. Is this really the case across different national contexts (and if so, why)? What role do justice institutions play in processes of social inclusion and exclusion?

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

Beneficiaries are academics - discussed above - and those involved in criminal policy and criminal justice practitioners. Key policy and practitioner audiences are:

- central government politicians and their advisors in government departments (Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office);
- bodies concerned with accountability and professional standards, such as the National Audit Office, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Independent Police Complaints Authority, the Judicial College and the College of Policing;
- police and Crime Commissioners and senior police officers;
- the senior judiciary, Crown Court judges and the magistracy; and,
- non-governmental organisations with an interest in criminal justice and penal policy.

We have pre-existing links with these bodies. Several have shown interest in our work to date. We also think it important to engage with NGOs such as the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League, and Victim Support (all of whom have worked with us previously), and would hope to engage with these bodies in our dissemination strategy.

We aim to reach audiences beyond the UK. The team has been involved in two EU FP7 projects (Euro-Justis and Fiducia) on these topics, and we shall exploit the networks and dissemination frameworks that the two projects have developed, to reach European audiences.

How will they benefit from this research?

The study will offer beneficiaries a fresh perspective, or set of concepts, for thinking about social regulation and crime control. It will sensitise politicians and leaders in the criminal justice system to ideas about legitimacy and normative compliance. We shall build an evidence base about the links between legitimacy and compliance with the law, on the one hand, and about the 'building blocks' of institutional legitimacy, on the other. As politicians, police and sentencers come to attach more importance to issues of institutional legitimacy, they will need better information about the surest routes to building legitimacy - and the quickest ways of squandering it.

How will we reach our key audiences?

We shall produce several distinct 'products' to ensure that the project's findings are fully exploited and reach relevant audiences. Academic audiences will be reached through a minimum of three peer-reviewed journal articles and a monograph. We shall also present findings at the British, European and American Societies of Criminology conferences in 2015/16.

We shall produce shorter and more accessible articles targeting various policy and practitioner audiences. A key divide is between policing audiences and the judiciary. However, effective dissemination is not simply a question of publishing an article in a professional journal. It is important to build and exploit networks, to present results informally, and at conferences and seminars, and where possible through training events. (The College of Policing and the Judicial College are key bodies to target on the latter.)

Products for policy audiences include:

- a web-published policy report of around 25-30 pages;
- publications in professional journals;
- circulation of thematic summaries to relevant national and international stakeholder organisations;
- posting news and short summaries about the project on our institutional websites and blogs; and,
- participation in policy, practitioner and academic conferences and seminars (potential hosts including the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the College of Policing and the Judicial College).

We can also count on the support of the European Social Survey Central Coordinating Team to help us in dissemination. They will publicise our work on their website, and they are likely to want to publish findings in their series of 'topline findings' for general audiences, as they have already done (see ESS, 2011, 2012).

Finally, we shall disseminate findings to broadcast and print media.


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Description To control crime, we need to understand why people obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities. To persuade and dissuade the general population, crime policies need to resonate with people's sense of morality and rationality. In this study we address an increasingly popular framework, procedural justice theory (PJT), which predicts that people are motivated to comply with the law and cooperate with legal authorities because of values, identity and citizenship, rather than instrumental calculations of risks and benefits.

PJT argues for a value-based approach to legal regulation. It calls for institutions to be designed in ways that promote the development of social values such as legitimacy. Compared to crime-control policies based around deterrence and instrumental models of cooperation - that seek to demonstrate to citizens that the police are effective and the courts are punitive - a values-based model may be a more efficient and effective basis for encouraging people to bring their behaviour in line with law and legal institutions. If most people obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities without the active force of deterrence and punishment, then the police can target the hard-core whose behaviour is motivated not by values but by rational choice and self-interest.

Yet, extant tests of PJT have been largely limited to the US, Australia, UK and Israel. Moreover the lack of methodological equivalence (different measures, modelling strategies, sampling and interviewing procedures) means that it is difficult to properly compare prior findings. We were the chief designers of a module in the European Social Survey (ESS) and its replication in the US and South Africa. Importantly, our data have benefited from a high degree of care given to equivalence, with largely similar types of sampling, similar measures, and similar approaches to statistical analysis.

The first objective was to test the portability of PJT across 29 diverse social, legal and political contexts. Addressing public cooperation with the police (our work on public compliance with the law is ongoing), we found that police legitimacy and personal morality both tend to be more important predictors of cooperation than worry about victimization and trust in the ability of the police to control crime. We also found that procedural justice tends to be a stronger predictor of legitimacy than trust in police effectiveness, although the magnitude of the statistical effects of effectiveness is generally larger than has been found in prior studies.

The second objective was to examine issues of ethnicity and migration. We found that ethnic minority status is not a consistent predictor of police legitimacy, and that across almost all of the 27 countries included in the ESS, any negative bivariate association between ethnic minority status and police legitimacy disappeared once one takes into account factors that define the extent and form a minority group's incorporation within the wider social and political sphere. What seems most important are the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion though which some minority groups become fully incorporated into social and economic systems - including systems of social control - whilst other minority groups do not.

Also key to legitimacy judgments is the change in institutional 'frames of reference' experienced as a result of immigration. When, for example, people from poorer, more corrupt countries with less well functioning criminal justice systems move to richer, less corrupt countries with better performing justice systems, they tend to imbue more legitimacy in the police than the native-born. Interestingly, this 'comparison effect' seems to weaken the longer immigrants reside in their new country. As with the first strand of our project, our work continues.
Exploitation Route The current project builds on two large-scale EC-funded projects and its impact should be seen in this context. For some ten years now we have been trying to persuade policy makers and other stakeholders that fairness is not simply a desirable feature of justice systems, but a precondition for effective justice, and that institutional legitimacy is key to justice policy. We will continue to try to influence the terms and nature of debate in criminal justice.

In terms of UK impact, our work has influenced the operational strategies of the Metropolitan Police; and been disseminated by invitation to senior staff from Cabinet Office, Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Office of National Statistics. Key consumers of this research have included senior figures in the police and judiciary; policy officials and researchers in both spending departments and the Cabinet Office; the National Audit Office; and politicians. HMIC, the College of Policing and IPCC were targeted with early results, and newsprint and broadcast media were used to publicise the study

In terms of international impact, we have disseminated results to senior EU officials via presentations to the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary, and (several times) to the Centre for European Studies (CEPS).
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description This project is one of several consequences of a successful bid to design a questionnaire module within the fifth (2010) European Social Survey (ESS), to test various hypotheses relating to 'procedural justice theory'. The programme of work, including the dozen published outputs attributed to this ESRC grant - which already show over 50 citations in Google Scholar - has done a great deal to shift police and judicial legitimacy to the centre of criminal policy preoccupations in the UK. When our ESS programme was in its early stages in 2012, the National Audit Office recommended that the House of Commons Justice Committee and the MoJ should "watch carefully for further publications" from the team. Since then the PI and two CIs have kept closely in touch with officials in the College of Policing, HM Inspectorate of Policing, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime in London, as well as a range of senior police officers. HM Inspectorate of Policing has adopted many of our ideas and in its PEEL (Police Effectiveness, Efficiency and Legitimacy) inspections, and they now pay particular attention to principles of procedural justice. Members of the research team have advised HMIC on its 'legitimacy inspections' and on its work on stop and search. We also have ongoing working relationships with key officials within the College of Policing to help progress their thinking on procedural justice and organisational justice.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description From coercion to consent: social identity, legitimacy, and a process model of police procedural justice (CONSIL).
Amount £783,595 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/R011397/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 08/2021
Description Conference presentation at European Society of Criminology conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was a presentation at an international conference, with the primary audience being academic and policy researchers, with secondary audiences of policy/practitioners and postgraduates.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015