Understanding Public Tolerance for Justice System Error

David McClure

Advisor: David B Wilson, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: Devon Johnson, Linda Merola, Jon B. Gould

Student Union I, #3A
April 28, 2015, 11:00 AM to 08:00 AM


A growing body of research continues to examine the prevalence of wrongful convictions (where the criminal justice system finds a truly innocent person to be guilty). A subset of that research has focused on perceptions of wrongful convictions, but very little has been done to understand perceptions of wrongful convictions as they relate to the opposite form of criminal justice system error: wrongful releases (where the criminal justice system finds a truly guilty person to be not guilty).

This exploratory research expands the current state of knowledge on perceptions of criminal justice system error by pairing survey questions that are frequently used to measure perceptions of wrongful convictions  with analogous questions to also ask about wrongful releases. This study includes several original questions to empirically examine the public’s tolerable balance between the two forms of criminal justice system error with respect to instances of sexual assault. The questions about these two forms of error are posed to a nationally representative sample of internet users through Google Consumer Surveys services, and the results are analyzed to provide information about: 1) the public’s perception of the frequency of both types of justice system error; 2) explanations for the public’s perceptions of each type of justice system error; 3) the relationship between the public’s perceptions of these two forms of error; 4) the public’s beliefs on whether justice system errors are frequent enough to justify system reform; and 5) the public’s beliefs about a tolerable rate of for the justice system.

This study finds that the public perceives wrongful convictions to occur in sexual assault cases at about the same rate identified by most of the empirical research on the prevalence of wrongful convictions more generally. While the overwhelming majority of respondents are not willing to accept reforms if it increases the other type of error, there is a somewhat greater tolerance for reforms that reduce the risk of a convicting an innocent person, even if it means letting a guilty person go free. However, while past research has reported that a majority of people believe wrongful convictions occur frequently enough to justify major changes in the criminal justice system, this research has added a new facet to that claim by discovering the same belief is even more widely held with respect to wrongful releases.