Social Trust in Criminal Justice: A Metric


What is the metric by which to measure a well-functioning criminal justice system? If a modern state is going to measure performance by counting something—and a modern state will always count something—what, in the criminal justice context, should it count? Remarkably, there is at present no widely accepted metric of success or failure in criminal justice. Those there are—like arrest rates, conviction rates, and crime rates—are deeply flawed. And the search for a better metric is complicated by the cacophony of different goals that theorists, policymakers, and the public bring to the criminal justice system, including crime control, racial justice, retributive justice, and social solidarity.

This Article proposes a metric based on the concept of social trust. The measure of a well- or poorly functioning criminal system is its marginal effects on (1) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward the institutions, officials, laws, and actions that comprise the criminal justice system; (2) the level of trust a polity’s members have, in virtue of the criminal system’s operations, toward government generally (beyond the criminal justice system); and (3) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward one another following incidents of crime and responses to crime. Social trust, we argue, both speaks to an issue at the philosophical core of crime and punishment and serves as a locus of agreement among the many goals people bring to the criminal justice system. The concept can thus be a site of overlapping consensus, performing the vital function of enabling liberal societies to make policy despite disagreement about first principles.