Procedural Justice

Procedural justice speaks to the idea of fair processes, and how people’s perception of fairness is strongly impacted by the quality of their experiences and not only the end result of these experiences. Procedural justice theory has been applied to various settings, including supervisor-employee relations within organizations, educational settings, and the criminal justice system. In the criminal justice context, most procedural justice research has focused on citizen-police interactions.

Think about this setting for a moment: a driver is stopped by a police officer. What determines the driver’s perception of this experience? Extensive research has shown that the driver’s perception of the quality of this encounter depends less on its outcome, that is, on whether they have received or not a ticket, and more on whether they felt treated in a “procedurally just” way.

Individuals’ perceptions of procedurally just encounters are based on four central features of their interactions with legal authorities:

  1. Whether they were treated with dignity and respect;
  2. Whether they were given voice;
  3. Whether the decision-maker was neutral and transparent; and
  4. Whether the decision-maker conveyed trustworthy motives.

For decades, our research has demonstrated that procedural justice is critical for building trust and increasing the legitimacy of law enforcement authorities within communities. As such, it has paramount implications for both public safety and officer efficacy. While highly publicized abuses of authority by police officers fuel distrust and erode legitimacy, less publicized, day-to-day interactions between community members and law enforcement are also influential in shaping people’s long-term attitudes toward the police.

In recent years, as the body of research on procedural justice grew, it became evident that with training, the concept can take hold at both the individual and organizational level. Procedural justice furthers agencies’ efforts to restore strained community relationships by laying the groundwork for legitimacy. Certainly, police officers are granted legal legitimacy in the sense that they are legally authorized to perform their duties. However, in the context of procedural justice, legitimacy refers to the extent to which an organization and its agents are perceived as morally just, honest, and worthy of trust and confidence. Perceptions of legitimacy, therefore, improve compliance and cooperation through improved attitudes toward police. As a result, procedural justice is a powerful tool in improving public safety.

Four Pillars of Procedural Justice

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Voice: Individuals are given a chance to express their concerns and participate in decision-making processes by telling their side of the story

Respect: All individuals are treated with dignity and respect

Neutrality: Decisions are unbiased and guided by consistent and transparent reasoning

Trustworthiness: Decision-makers convey trustworthy motives and concern about the well-being of those impacted by their decisions