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date: 21 May 2024

Procedural Justice in the Criminal Justice Systemfree

Procedural Justice in the Criminal Justice Systemfree

  • Elise Sargeant, Elise SargeantSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University
  • Julie BarkworthJulie BarkworthSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University
  •  and Natasha S. MadonNatasha S. MadonSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University


Fairness and equity are key concerns in modern liberal democracies. In step with this general trend, academics and practitioners have long been concerned with the fairness of procedures utilized by the criminal justice system. Definitions vary, but procedural justice is loosely defined as fair treatment and fair decision-making by authorities. In the criminal justice system, the procedural justice of authorities such as police officers, judicial officers, and correctional officers is evaluated by members of the public. Procedural justice in the criminal justice system is viewed as an end in and of itself, but it is also an opportunity to yield various outcomes including legitimacy, public compliance with the law, cooperation with criminal justice officials, and satisfaction with criminal justice proceedings and outcomes.


  • Corrections
  • Courts
  • International Crime
  • Policing


This article comprises an overview of the use of procedural justice in three key areas of the criminal justice system: policing, courts, and corrections. The article begins with a summary of the theoretical underpinnings and definitions of procedural justice. Key outcomes that result from the use of procedural justice are then discussed. The article concludes with selected critiques and directions for future research.

Theoretical Background

The term “procedural justice” (often defined as fair treatment and fair-decision making processes) (Reisig, Bratton, & Gertz, 2007) has a long history in criminal justice research. Since the 1970s numerous scholars have contributed to the development of this theoretical construct. This section overviews some of the key contributions to procedural justice theory in studies of the criminal justice system.

Thibaut and Walker (1975)

Thibaut and Walker (1975) are largely considered the “founding fathers” of procedural justice research. In their study of court processes, Thibaut and Walker examined the relationship between the perceived fairness of court proceedings and the degree of control disputants have over these proceedings. They described two types of control: control over the decisions made by the court, and control over the court processes (e.g., having the opportunity to state their case before a decision is reached). Thibaut and Walker argued that people ascertain fairness based upon the level of control or influence that they have over decisions made by third parties (e.g., judges). The more control or input people have in these processes the more likely they are to believe in the fairness of resultant decisions.

Leventhal (1980)

Leventhal (1980) expanded on Thibaut and Walker’s (1975) notion of process control to consider the way people evaluate procedural justice. Here procedural justice is defined as “an individual’s perception of the fairness of procedural components of the social system that regulate the allocative process” (Leventhal, 1980, p. 35). In other words, Leventhal was interested in the way fairness impacts on perceptions of decision-making processes. Leventhal developed six criteria to evaluate procedural justice in decision-making processes. These are: representativeness (i.e., the allocation of decisions must reflect “basic concerns, values, and [the] outlook of important subgroups in the population”); consistency of procedures; suppression of bias; accuracy; correctability (i.e., opportunities must be available to reverse decisions); and ethicality (i.e., decisions must be made with consideration for ethics) (Leventhal, 1980, pp. 40–44). For Leventhal, people value these aspects because they are viewed as important in an instrumental sense, that is, for achieving a specific goal (Beier, Eib, Oehmann, Fiedler, & Fiedler, 2014).

Lind and Tyler’s (1988) Group Value Model

Tyler and colleagues built on the work of Thibaut and Walker (1975) and Leventhal (1980) to better understand the way people view decision-making processes (particularly in the context of the criminal justice system). Of particular note here is the Group Value Model. The Group Value Model was proposed by Lind and Tyler (1988) when they noted that people who are subject to authorities’ decisions are interested not only in process control or the outcomes of decisions, but also in the perceived fairness of the decision-making process. In their research, Lind and Tyler found decision-making processes mattered, irrespective of the outcome. They argued that their results could not be “accounted for by explanations that suppose that people view procedures solely as instruments for generating either favourable or equitable rewards” (Lind & Tyler, 1988, p. 229). In other words, relational aspects of fair treatment matter to people.

In the Group Value Model, Lind and Tyler (1988) subsequently described the way that group identity can influence evaluations of authority through procedural justice. In the context of the criminal justice system, “group identity” is defined as identification with the state that the group authority (e.g., a police officer or a judicial officer) represents (e.g., national identity). Drawing on Tajfel’s social identity theory (e.g., Tajfel, 1978), Lind and Tyler proposed that procedures are “important aspects of the perception of groups” and therefore that “procedural justice judgments, would be expected to have strong effects on the other group relevant attitudes” such as “evaluations of leaders and institutions” (Lind & Tyler, 1988, p. 232). More explicitly, Tyler, Degoey, and Smith (1996, p. 913) explained that:

fair procedures and treatment by authorities communicate identity-relevant information to the individuals affected by these procedures. In particular, the [group value] model proposes that fair procedures and treatment communicate information about: (a) the degree to which individuals are respected members of their groups and (b) the degree to which they can feel pride in their group membership.

The Group Value Model predicts that receiving procedural justice from authorities reaffirms a sense of group membership which, in turn, encourages positive evaluations of group authorities. These evaluations are contingent upon the importance placed on one’s status within the group the authority represents (Lind & Tyler, 1988). That is, being a member of the group that the authority represents means that procedural justice will matter to you. While there have been numerous theoretical developments in the field of procedural justice research since the inception of the Group Value Model (see, for example, Tyler & Blader, 2003; Tyler & Lind, 1992), this model underpins much of the subsequent research and theoretical development surrounding the use of procedural justice in the criminal justice system.

What Is Procedural Justice?

As with theoretical development, definitions of procedural justice have evolved over time. Procedural justice can be loosely defined as “fair procedures,” however the components of procedural justice have developed in line with theory. Drawing on the work of Lind and Tyler (1988) and Leventhal (1980), Tyler (1989) and Tyler and Lind (1992, p. 152) identified three factors that contribute to the belief that procedures are fair: “standing,” “neutrality,” and “trust.” Tyler and Lind (1992, p. 159) suggested standing is influenced by “dignity,” “politeness,” and “respect for rights”; neutrality by the “absence of bias or prejudice,” “honesty,” and “fact-based decision making”; and trust by “concern for needs” and “consideration of views.”

Tyler and Blader (2000, p. 12) built on this definition, arguing that Tyler and Lind’s (1992) definition linked “fairness to particular procedural elements, such as neutrality, but [did] not organize the elements in terms of an overall conceptual framework.” Tyler and Blader (2000, p. 11) subsequently proposed a new definition distinguishing “procedural criteria that are related to the quality of decision-making processes and procedural criteria that reflect the quality of the treatment people experience.” These two criteria or elements of procedural justice (decision and treatment) are commonly adopted in criminal justice research. For example, Reisig et al. (2007, p. 1009) note that procedural justice is “frequently operationalized using multiple survey items that reflect two related constructs: fairness of police decision making and quality of treatment” in studies of policing.

Another way of conceptualizing procedural justice is to consider the “four key procedural justice principles” (Blader & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 2007, p. 30; see also Tyler & Huo, 2002) that impact on perceptions of procedural justice. These are “voice,” “neutrality,” “respect,” and “trust” (Tyler, 2007, p. 30). In the context of authorities’ decisions voice accounts for the fact that “people want to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story in their own words” (Tyler, 2007, p. 30), and neutrality refers to decisions made without personal bias. Respect is communicated by treating people with dignity and courtesy (Tyler, 2007), and trust, or “trustworthy motives,” is demonstrated when authorities care about the public, and act in their best interests (Tyler, 2007 p. 30; see also Goodman-Delahunty, 2010; Tyler & Huo, 2002).

In studies of both police and courts, procedural justice is often operationalized with either the four underlying elements (voice, neutrality, respect, and trust) or the two key components (quality of treatment and quality of decision making) (e.g., Canada & Watson, 2013; Gover, Brank, & MacDonald, 2007; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 2001, 2003). Within the corrections context, some 21st-century research utilizes the four elements of procedural justice (e.g., Barkworth, 2018; Reisig & Meško, 2009; Weinrath, 2016); however, much of the extant research is grounded in Liebling’s (2004) work on prison quality. While not specifically referring to procedural justice, this wider body of corrections work defines interpersonal treatment between prison staff and prisoners as including elements such as safety, humanity, order, respect, fairness, and staff–prisoner relationships. Prisoners identify these aspects as important to their quality of (prison) life. Several corrections studies have since employed procedural justice measures that incorporate factors around respect, humanity, fairness, and relationships (e.g., Beijersbergen, Dirkzwager, Eichelsheim, Van der Laan, & Nieuwbeerta, 2014, 2015; Beijersbergen, Dirkzwager, & Nieuwbeerta, 2016; Brunton-Smith & McCarthy, 2016).

Why Is Procedural Justice Important?

In liberal, democratic societies, procedural justice is generally viewed as an important end in and of itself. In the criminal justice system, victims, offenders, and members of the public more broadly, want to be treated fairly by criminal justice authorities, and authorities ought to treat the public in such a way. The utility of procedural justice extends to the outcomes it can yield, which include satisfaction with criminal justice proceedings and decisions, and willingness to cooperate and comply with the law, police, courts, and corrective services. This section overviews some examples of how procedural justice can influence outcomes. It is important to note that procedural justice research is an expansive field and, as such, this article does not offer a comprehensive literature review; instead some of the key theoretical contributions and findings in this field are highlighted.

Satisfaction With Criminal Justice Authorities and Processes

Early conceptualizations of procedural justice in the criminal justice system were concerned with its effect on satisfaction with the outcomes of decision-making processes. For example, Thibaut and Walker (1975) were concerned with the impact of “decision control” on the way in which defendants perceive the outcomes of court processes. Thibaut and Walker hypothesized that dispute resolution procedures would impact on satisfaction, regardless of the resolution reached, and found that even though disputants are less satisfied when they receive unfavorable outcomes, perceptions of procedural justice reduce the level of dissatisfaction experienced.

Building on the work of Thibaut and Walker (1975), Tyler (1984) sought to progress understandings of outcome satisfaction by questioning the extent to which outcomes matter to citizens when determining their satisfaction with criminal justice actors and processes. Tyler’s study represents a departure from much of the previous research in that he proposed that procedural justice would be related to outcome satisfaction regardless of whether or not citizens received favorable outcomes. Tyler found that while outcomes and sanctions were important to people, how people felt that their court matter was handled (procedural justice), as well as how they felt they were treated by judges, predicted satisfaction with the outcome.

Later, Casper, Tyler, and Fisher (1988, p. 486) examined views of procedural justice and distributive justice (defined here as the “justness of the outcome”) among men charged with felony offences in Phoenix, Baltimore, and Detroit in order to better understand factors that influence outcome satisfaction in the context of court proceedings. The authors sought to explore whether or not procedural justice mattered to people even when they had a high stake in the outcome. To do this, Casper et al. included various aspects of the court process in their models, such as whether the defendant pled guilty or not guilty (and thus had a trial), as well as their perceptions of outcome severity and procedural justice. They found procedural justice was the strongest predictor of outcome satisfaction for both those who pled guilty and those who experienced a trial process. The length of sentence that defendants received was interestingly not found to directly affect outcome satisfaction, with this path being mediated by perceptions of distributive justice. While Casper et al.’s findings indicate that treatment matters to individuals going through criminal courts, they note that this does not suggest sentence severity does not also matter. Rather, these findings signal the importance of treatment even when outcomes (such as the possibility of lengthy sentences) also matter to people.

Taken together, these results highlight the complex factors associated with outcome satisfaction, and the significance of procedural justice for criminal justice system outcomes. They also fit with 21st-century research which emphasizes the importance of interpersonal treatment and fairness over outcome satisfaction in the court setting (e.g., Benesh & Howell, 2001; Burdziej, Guzik, & Pilitowski, 2019; Gover et al., 2007; Grootelaar & van den Bos, 2018; see also Tyler, 1984).

More recently, procedural justice has been applied to other types of courts, such as drug courts, mental health courts, and domestic violence courts (e.g., Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2016; Canada & Watson, 2013; Dollar, Ray, & Hudson, 2018). These types of courts move away from the traditional adversarial model of the criminal justice system (i.e., deterrence and punishment) to adopt a more therapeutic approach (i.e., support and treatment). Procedural justice has been examined in these contexts as it is expected that fair treatment employed in such courts will improve satisfaction and compliance (e.g., will reduce recidivism rates). For instance, Gover et al. (2007) examined victims’ and offenders’ satisfaction with the Lexington County Domestic Violence Court process. Gover et al. sought to determine how procedural justice elements related in the context of domestic violence courts. Overall, they found most victims and offenders in the study felt that they were treated with respect, that their case was handled in a fair manner, and, relatedly, that they were satisfied with the court upon case completion.

Procedural justice is also examined in the context of restorative justice processes. Here, research has explored whether restorative justice approaches (which involve greater participation of all involved parties than do traditional court processes) are related to greater perceptions of procedural justice among involved parties (see Barnes, Hyatt, Angel, Strang, & Sherman, 2015) and lower levels of recidivism (see Hipple, Gruenewald, & McGarrell, 2014). For example, Tyler, Sherman, Strang, Barnes, and Woods (2007) conducted one of the few longitudinal studies on the effect of procedural justice on support for the law and reoffending. Drawing on data collected in the Australian Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (which focused on offenders charged with drink driving), Tyler et al. examined differences between those randomly assigned to the traditional court system and those who participated in a restorative justice conference (which was thought to lead to a greater sense of procedural justice). Two years after the experiment, no significant differences in reoffending were found between the two groups. However, those who participated in the restorative justice process demonstrated greater support for the law. In this way, while restorative justice did not impact recidivism as expected, it did appear to bolster the legitimacy of the law among program participants.

Just as procedural justice impacts evaluations of court proceedings, it also matters when evaluating the outcomes of police–citizen encounters. One of the pivotal studies in this field was conducted by Tyler and Folger (1980). Drawing on data collected in Evanston, Illinois, Tyler and Folger examined citizen satisfaction with two types of police–citizen encounters: citizen-initiated (i.e., calling the police for assistance) and police-initiated (i.e., being apprehended by the police). They found that for respondents who experienced a citizen-initiated police contact, police behaving fairly was significantly related to call satisfaction (although police solving the problem was the strongest predictor). For those who experienced a police-initiated encounter, they found that police behaving fairly was the stronger prediction of satisfaction (compared to receiving a ticket, which was negatively related to satisfaction) (see also Skogan, 2005; Stone & Pettigrew, 2000).

Research conducted in Australia by Murphy (2009) identified similar results. Like Tyler and Folger (1980), Murphy found procedural justice was more important than police performance when predicting satisfaction with police-initiated contacts; however, the reverse was found for citizen-initiated contacts. Drawing on the same Australian dataset, Tyler et al. (2007) examined the impact of satisfaction with police encounters on more general perceptions of satisfaction with police. Hinds (2009) found that satisfaction with citizen-initiated police contacts predicted overall satisfaction with police and, moreover, that satisfaction with citizen-initiated police contacts mediated the relationship between perceptions of procedural justice and overall satisfaction with the police (see also Hinds & Murphy, 2007, where more general perceptions of procedural justice are associated with increased satisfaction with police).

Social observation research similarly finds that procedural justice affects satisfaction with police encounters. Drawing on systematic social observations undertaken in suburban America, Jonathan-Zamir, Mastrofski, and Moyal (2015) examined the relationship between procedural justice and satisfaction with police, this time using observational research methods. In the majority of police–citizen encounters in their study, Jonathan-Zamir et al. found that when they observed the police to be procedurally just toward a citizen they also observed that the citizen appeared more satisfied with the encounter.

In addition to satisfaction with encounters and satisfaction with police more generally, other research on satisfaction with police has focused specifically on victims of crime. For example, in their Australian study, Elliott, Thomas, and Ogloff (2011) interviewed 110 people who had been a victim of crime in the preceding 12 months. They found the victims’ perceptions of procedural justice were positively and significantly associated with encounter satisfaction (see also Kumar, 2018). Elliott et al. (2011) also found procedural justice was a stronger predictor of satisfaction, compared to the receipt of a desired outcome.

In the corrections context, procedural justice may be less important for satisfaction. For example, Jenness and Calavita (2018) examined prisoners’ satisfaction with the process (procedural justice) and outcome (substantive justice) of filed grievances. Using data drawn from 120 prisoners randomly selected from three Californian prisons, the authors found prisoners placed more importance on the outcome they received than how the process was handled. Even when prisoners considered the grievance process was managed adequately, they were unlikely to be satisfied if the outcome was not favorable to them. Jenness and Calavita suggest that in an environment where the stakes are high, it is likely that perceptions of procedures and outcomes are viewed in combination (see also Heinz, 1985). Prisoners constantly experience decisions made on their behalf during their time in prison. They are told which prison they will serve time in; who they will serve time with; when and where they will eat, sleep, shower, etc.; whether they are able to work or study; whether privileges are given or taken away; whether or not and how they will be sanctioned if they are seen to breach prison rules; and when and under what conditions they will be released. Prison is clearly a high-stakes environment, yet very little research has examined whether prisoners view the processes and treatment involved in making such decisions as fair and whether this impacts their satisfaction with the outcome they receive.

Cooperation and Compliance

Procedural justice research in the criminal justice system began with a focus on satisfaction with decision-making processes. This focus quickly shifted to the potential for procedural justice to encourage the public’s perceptions of authorities as legitimate and their willingness, or reported willingness, to cooperate and comply with the law and legal authorities. This is important because criminal justice actors want to be perceived as legitimate and entitled to obedience, and they seek to encourage a general willingness to obey the law in the absence of police, or beyond the imposed probation order, to ensure that people are not continually offending and being cycled through the criminal justice process (Tyler, 2007).

Cooperation and compliance with criminal justice authorities are also of key concern for policymakers, practitioners, and academics because self-directed compliance behavior is viewed as a more desirable alternative to compliance by force. Eliciting compliance by force is problematic in the criminal justice system. For example, police use of force can result in arrest, injury, and even death (Bozeman et al., 2018; MacDonald, Kaminsky, & Smith, 2009). The use of force may be even more salient in prison, where individuals have already demonstrated noncompliance. However, the use of excessive force can still have detrimental psychological consequences for prisoners, and may lead to increased acts of resistance, retribution, and rule-breaking (Jackson, Tyler, Bradford, Taylor, & Shiner, 2010). As such, relying on “people’s internal motivations for obeying the law” (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003, p. 523) is preferred by both authorities and the general public.

In addition to compliance, voluntary cooperation with criminal justice authorities is important. For example, without the cooperation of the public, police are limited in their ability to effectively prevent and control crime (e.g., they need people to willingly report crime and victimization to them) (Tyler & Fagan, 2008). In a corrections context, prison staff similarly rely on the voluntary cooperation of prisoners to obtain accurate and relevant intelligence and maintain order within the prison (Liebling & Price, 2001).

Tyler and colleagues explain that procedural justice may encourage willingness to cooperate or comply with authorities via the mechanism of legitimacy (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler & Fagan, 2008; Tyler & Huo, 2002). Tyler explains that in order for people to cooperate and comply with legal authorities they must designate these authorities as “legitimate” (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler & Fagan, 2008; Tyler & Huo, 2002). Much of the research on procedural justice in the criminal justice system has subsequently focused on public perceptions of the legitimacy of these institutions and has particularly focused on the way in which procedural justice contributes to perceptions of legitimacy.

While definitions of “legitimacy” are contested, it is often defined as “a property of an authority or institution that leads people to feel that that authority or institution is entitled to be deferred to and obeyed” (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003, p. 514). Legitimacy reflects the “acceptance by people of the need to bring their behavior into line with the dictates of an external authority” (Tyler, 1990, p. 25). When people believe that authorities are legitimate they are, in turn, more likely to cooperate and comply with said authorities (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler & Fagan, 2008; Tyler & Huo, 2002).

Policing research focuses on testing the pathway between procedural justice, instrumental factors (such as police effectiveness, distributive justice, and deterrence), legitimacy, and cooperation and compliance (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003, p. 514). Tyler and his colleagues argue that procedural justice and police legitimacy are much stronger predictors of cooperation and compliance than are instrumental factors such as police effectiveness, deterrence risk (“their ability to catch rule-breakers”), and distributive justice (“the fairness of their distribution of outcomes”) (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003, p. 518; Tyler & Fagan, 2008). Tyler and Fagan (2008, p. 241) also emphasize the importance of procedural justice in encouraging police legitimacy:

The procedural justice model of policing argues that the police can build general legitimacy among the public by treating people justly during personal encounters. This argument is based upon two empirical arguments. The first is that people evaluate personal experiences with the police by evaluating the fairness of police procedures. The second is that this means that by using fair procedures the police can increase their legitimacy, even if their policing activities involve restricting or sanctioning the people with whom they are dealing.

In their influential paper, Sunshine and Tyler (2003) contrast the effect of procedural justice and legitimacy, and more instrumental factors, on “three aspects of public support: behavioral compliance with the law, behavioral cooperation with the police, and public willingness to support policies that empower the police to use their discretion in enforcing the law” (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003, p. 514; see also Tyler & Huo, 2002). Using survey data of New Yorkers collected pre- and post-September 11, 2001, the authors found that legitimacy was the strongest predictor (compared to the instrumental factors) of cooperation and compliance. They also found that procedural justice was the strongest predictor of legitimacy. In the post-September 11 survey, they compared White, Hispanic, and Black sub-samples. They found that, regardless of the subsample, the general pattern of results remained the same. Ultimately, these findings indicate that procedural justice and legitimacy are more important than instrumental factors (such as police effectiveness and deterrence) when encouraging voluntary cooperation and compliance with police.

Since this earlier work of Tyler and colleagues, numerous studies have found procedural justice to be an important predictor of legitimacy and cooperation with police in the United States (e.g., Huq, Tyler, & Schulhofer, 2011a, 2011b; Kochel, 2018; Tyler, Schulhofer, & Huq, 2010; White, Mulvey, & Dario, 2016) and elsewhere (e.g., Cherney & Murphy, 2013; DeCremer & Tyler, 2017; Hamm, Trinkner, & Carr, 2017; Jackson, Bradford, Stanko, & Hohl, 2012; Madon, Murphy, & Cherney, 2016; Murphy & Cherney, 2011a, 2011b; Murphy, Madon, & Cherney, 2017; Murphy, Sargeant, & Cherney, 2015; Reisig & Lloyd, 2009; Reisig, Tankebe, & Meško, 2012; Sargeant, Murphy, & Cherney, 2014; Van Damme, Pauwels, & Svensson, 2015). Research also finds procedural justice is important for compliance with police in police–citizen encounters, and with the law more broadly (Barkworth & Murphy, 2015; Mazerolle, Bennett, Antrobus, & Eggins, 2012; McClusky, Mastrofski, & Parks, 1999; Reisig, Tankebe, & Meško, 2014). It should be acknowledged, however, that most of these studies consider citizens’ perceived or reported compliance, rather than their actual behavior (Nagin & Telep, 2017). This issue is discussed further in the section Critiques and Future Directions below.

Several studies have examined legitimacy and procedural justice in the court context. These studies similarly find quality of treatment is an important factor associated with the perceived legitimacy of, and confidence in, courts (Burdziej et al., 2019) and court actors (Hulst, van den Bos, Akkermans, & Lind, 2017a), as well as the broader criminal justice system (Greene, Sprott, Madon, & Jung, 2010). For example, in his U.S. study Tyler (2001) examined four key factors that affect confidence in the courts (confidence and trust have been used as proxy measures of an authority’s legitimacy in the early procedural justice literature). Those factors were: “outcome fairness, quality of treatment, structural problems, and costs of litigation” (Tyler, 2001, p. 226). He found that, overall, people’s perceptions of how the courts treat them is the strongest predictor of confidence.

In Toronto, Sprott and Greene (2010) also examined trust and confidence in the courts (again, used as a proxy for legitimacy evaluations) among a sample of youth court defendants. Participants were interviewed at their first appearance for a charge and again after a decision was made in their case. The authors found defendants’ perception of their treatment by the judge at time 2 was the strongest predictor of their views on the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, with those who perceived high procedural justice being more likely to view the system as legitimate than those who perceived low procedural justice. Sprott and Greene (2010) also found that those who felt their lawyers treated them with higher procedural justice were more likely to view the criminal justice system as legitimate, independent of case outcomes. These results suggest the procedural justice of court actors is more important to defendants than the disposition of their case, even in criminal court proceedings.

Research on procedural justice and the courts also finds that procedural justice promotes willingness to obey the law and to accept decisions (Baker et al., 2015; Tyler, 2003, 2007; Tyler & Huo, 2002). In their survey of incarcerated female offenders in the United States, Baker et al. (2015) found the strongest predictor of obligation to obey the law was perceived procedural justice of the court process. Relatedly, Tyler and Huo (2002) examined people’s willingness to accept the decisions of judges (as well as police) in their survey of Californians. They found that regardless of racial or ethnic group, procedural justice was the strongest predictor of willingness to accept decisions.

Corrections research has also examined the relationship between procedural justice and legitimacy, cooperation, and compliance. Numerous studies find procedural justice is positively associated with the perceived legitimacy of prison staff and with prisoners’ willingness to cooperate with staff and comply with prison rules (e.g., Barkworth, 2018; Beijersbergen et al., 2015, 2016; Brunton-Smith & McCarthy, 2016; Reisig & Meško, 2009; Weinrath, 2016). However, other studies present mixed findings. For example, Reisig and Meško (2009) examined the relationship between procedural justice, legitimacy, and compliance using self-report survey data and official prison records from Slovenian prisoners. While they found that positive perceptions of procedural justice were related to fewer instances of misconduct, they also found no relationship between perceptions of procedural justice and perceptions of staff legitimacy, or between perceptions of staff legitimacy and prisoner misconduct. In contrast, Barkworth (2018) used self-report survey data from Australian prisoners, combined with official compliance data, to examine the relationship between procedural justice, legitimacy, and compliance. Barkworth found positive perceptions of procedural justice were related to both the perceived legitimacy of prison staff and fewer instances of misconduct (with legitimacy also predicting less misconduct). The mixed findings in these studies may be attributed to variations in the measurement of key variables or contextual differences between Slovenian and Australian prisons. Ultimately, additional research in this area is still needed.

Hacin and Meško (2018) examined prisoner perceptions of procedural justice, staff legitimacy, and motives for compliance. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 193 Slovenian prisoners, the authors found the majority of prisoners considered staff were professional and treated them with respect. The fairness of prison staff was also associated with perceptions of respectful and dignified treatment, and with the perceived legality of decisions. More than half of all prisoners, however, indicated they felt obligated to accept decisions and follow orders, even when they did not agree with them or like the way they were treated. The authors attribute this to a fear of sanctions or loss of benefits rather than an internalized belief that prison staff hold legitimate power (i.e., instrumental compliance), arguing:

Instrumental compliance is considered as the first step toward establishing legitimacy in a prison environment. It is unreasonable to expect that prisoners, who are defined by their fundamental conflict with the state, would internalise the norms of prison workers, whom they consider the direct representatives of the criminal justice system, immediately upon their arrival to prison.

(Hacin & Meško, 2018, p. 15)

Hacin and Meško went on to argue that legitimacy was further established when relationships between prison staff and prisoners were based on “respect, legality, and fairness” (Hacin & Meško, 2018, p. 16). Studies within the corrections context continue to provide support for authorities engaging in procedural justice practices with those they govern, though further research should continue to explore the various motives for why prisoners comply with prison rules and staff directives.

Critiques and Future Directions

Research examining the use of procedural justice in the criminal justice system has experienced exponential growth since the late 20th century—most notably in the field of policing. Despite this, there are a number of critiques of prior research which can be addressed in future scholarship, and some notable areas for theoretical advancement.

For example, the link between procedural justice and compliant behavior has not been a focus of prior research. The majority of research on procedural justice in the criminal justice system has relied on cross-sectional survey data and, more specifically, on attitudes toward compliance and cooperation (in contrast to observed compliance behavior) (see Nagin & Telep, 2017, for a discussion of this issue in the context of policing research). Further to this point, Skogan, Van Craen, and Hennessy (2015, p. 321) note that “virtually no research of any flavor has been done on procedural justice training” (although see Fildes & Thompson, 2016; Skogan et al., 2015; Wheller, Quinton, Fildes, & Mills, 2013; see also Nagin & Telep, 2017, for a discussion).

Since around 2010 a growing number of scholars have employed experimental and longitudinal methodologies in survey research to better understand the causal pathways of the procedural justice model in the criminal justice system (e.g., Beijersbergen et al., 2014, 2015, 2016; Farley, Jensen, & Rempel, 2014; Hulst, van den Bos, Akkermans, & Lind, 2017b; Mazerolle et al., 2012; Nix, Pickett, Wolfe, & Campbell, 2017; Reisig & Meško, 2009). Future research should continue to incorporate experimental, longitudinal, and observational methodologies in order to more fully understand the causal relationships between procedural justice and its predicted outcomes. Importantly, research that involves the observation of compliant behavior is needed to determine whether or not procedural justice can impact behaviors as well as perceptions (Nagin & Telep, 2017; Worden & McLean, 2017).

The “invariance hypothesis” is another area of controversy that requires further exploration. The “invariance hypothesis” asks the question: does the procedural justice model apply in the same way across all people and contexts? Here, scholars have particularly focused on testing whether or not procedural justice and legitimacy are more important than instrumental factors (such as police effectiveness and distributive justice) in encouraging cooperation and compliance across all contexts. In terms of policing research, there are many examples that could be cited here. Some policing research finds that procedural justice operates differently in different cultural contexts (e.g., Tankebe, 2009), and across different ethnic and minority groups (e.g., Sargeant et al., 2014). In contrast, other research finds the efficacy of procedural justice in predicting police legitimacy does not vary across individual characteristics and experiences (e.g., Wolfe, Nix, Kaminski, & Rojek, 2016).

There are numerous opportunities for better understanding the “invariance hypothesis” in criminal justice research, particularly in the field of corrections. More research is needed to examine the way in which procedural justice may operate in the high-stakes environment of the prison context. The dominance of procedural justice over instrumental concerns in studies of policing, and increasingly in studies of prisons, will ensure its invariance or variance effects will continue to be examined (e.g., Murphy, 2017; Zahnow, Mazerolle, & Pang, 2019).

Research, particularly in the field of policing and corrections, has also begun to examine the use of procedural justice within institutions in the criminal justice system—that is, internal to criminal justice system organizations. There is a body of research that has examined the relationship between prison staff perceptions’ of organizational justice (incorporating both distributive justice and procedural justice) on their organizational commitment, job satisfaction, job stress, and psychological distress (e.g., Lambert, 2003; Lambert & Hogan, 2013; Lambert, Hogan, & Griffin, 2007; Taxman & Gordon, 2009). In the policing context, studies examine the relationship between beliefs that supervisors are fair and a range of outcomes including compliance and misconduct (e.g., Bradford, Murphy, & Jackson, 2014; Haas, Van Craen, Skogan, & Fleitas, 2015; Myhill & Bradford, 2013; Wolfe & Piquero, 2011). It is suggested that adopting procedural justice within criminal justice organizations, such as the police, may impact on the way that these criminal justice system authorities in turn treat the public (e.g., Myhill & Bradford, 2013; Sun, Wu, Van Craen, & Hsu, 2018).


This article introduced the topic of procedural justice research in the criminal justice system and traced the theoretical development of procedural justice. It also described the various ways that procedural justice has been defined. The way that criminal justice system authorities can use procedural justice to increase satisfaction, legitimacy, and self-reported cooperation and compliance among members of the public, victims, offenders, and prisoners (acknowledging some mixed findings) was also overviewed. The article concluded with some criticisms of prior research and suggested avenues for future study.

The research discussed here and elsewhere indicates that how people are treated across the various institutions of the criminal justice system matters when predicting key outcome measures, including self-reported cooperation, satisfaction, legitimacy, and sometimes compliance. Procedural justice research provides a counterargument to the notion that people will only comply with the law through deterrence and harsh punishment (Burdziej et al., 2019). This is found in several different contexts, with different groups of people and under different circumstances, demonstrating the veracity of the procedural justice framework. It is thus not surprising that procedural justice has gained such momentum among both academics and criminal justice agencies.

Further Reading

  • Bennett, S., Hine, L., & Mazerolle, L. (2018). Procedural justice. Oxford Bibliographies in Criminology.
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  • Murphy, K. (2017). Procedural justice and its role in promoting voluntary compliance. In P. Drahos (Ed.), Regulatory theory: Foundations and applications (pp. 43–58). Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.
  • Nagin, D., & Telep, C. (2017). Procedural justice and legal compliance. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13, 5–28.
  • Tyler, T. R. (2003). Procedural justice, legitimacy, and the effective rule of law. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 30, 283–358.
  • Tyler, T. R. (2006). Why people obey the law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Tyler, T. R. (2017). Procedural justice and policing: A rush to judgment? Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13, 29–35.


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