A wolf in sheep’s clothing? – the value of lay opinion

Today, lay people are predominantly referred to as ‘the public’ and their views, for the purpose of generalisability, are usually gathered through public opinion surveys. Contrary to the dominant methodological trends, in my doctoral research I decided to rely on qualitative interviews that aimed to delineate how a number of Polish lay people with different experiences understand punishment and justice. The choice to refer to lay opinion as the source of my data was frequently challenged throughout my Ph.D. years. Therefore, in response to this criticism I present three important themes running through discussions on the significance of lay people’s views and my justification for lay views as the basis for my study.

To begin with, although one generally thinks of punishment as a state function, or more precisely that the criminal justice system is the state system of control of its citizens, Garland (2012) refers to Durkheim and encourages punishment to be thought of as a public exercise, where social legitimacy can be interpreted through lay people’s ‘collective consciousness’, defined by Durkheim as ‘the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society’.  In my research I approach punishment and justice as social activities, which also echoes another argument made in the literature that stories about crime and punishment are entangled with people’s daily routines, and as a result are lodged in their cultural imagination (see Garland & Sparks, 2000).

Secondly, a degree of lay approval and trust in criminal justice institutions has come to be seen as essential for the system to be viewed as legitimate. Delivering punishments in accordance with lay people’s sentiments promotes compliance – and such heightened legal compliance can result in greater reputation and moral credibility of the criminal justice system as well as increased co-operation and crime-control effectiveness (Maruna & King, 2004; Robinson, 2014). Roberts (2014) has argued that despite the fact that discussing people’s views in the field of penal policies is a recent phenomenon, ‘public consultation’ has become a general trend in many modern criminal justice jurisdictions – a development that can no longer be ignored. Moreover, Dzur (2014) has highlighted that the value of lay people’s views is central to the financial aspect of punishment and justice, as the functioning of those social institutions is financed by lay people – the taxpayers.  The author argues that lay people’s involvement in criminal justice decision-making should be regarded through their rights, duties and membership as individuals in a nation-state.  Although such an approach indicates a more active role for lay people, it is still worth challenging people’s ‘readiness’ to become a partner in crime resolution.

Thirdly, the subject of lay people also comes to the fore because of restorative justice. Lay involvement lies at the heart of the concept, and this is due to the fact that lay citizens are given back a ‘direct and hands-on control of justice decision making’ (Dzur, 2008:202) that creates a chance for them to experience the process of conflict resolution themselves. One of the rationales behind my doctoral research is to highlight that lay people’s perspectives can be seen as an indicator of the viability of restorative justice.

However, the troubling paradox of lay opinion lies in acknowledging the normative and democratic value of lay people’s views, and simultaneously challenging the reliability of such views. Lay views are frequently described by academics as an unreliable source of information based on a limited degree of knowledge and strongly dependent on media high-profile crime cases. For example, Keijser (2014) says that lay people’s opinions may prove to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, since turning to people who are constantly ‘getting it wrong’, could be considered a characteristic of penal populism. Next, the significance of lay people’s views and ordinary wisdom has been probably most challenged by the influence of news and fictional entertainment. Although frequently short-lived and dependent on nature and location, media representation of crime and sanctions is usually dramatic and excessive, which contributes to negative views (Roberts & Hough, 2005). However, Green (2009:530) explained that the increased focus on individual punitive discourses and narratives is due to the fact that the media do not provide people with alternative justice solutions (or case studies) that would give them opportunities to think differently about crime and sanctions.

The notion of ‘detached people’ with little experience of crime or criminal justice as well as the influence of the media requires a more robust investigation, as there is evidence that suggests the majority of people have some direct exposure to various aspects of the criminal justice system, and that people draw on ‘vicarious experiences’ of those close to them to form their opinions about punishment and justice (Feilzer, 2015). Therefore, I  very much align with Feilzer’s concept of public narratives (Feilzer, 2015), which aims at improving our understanding of the complex relationship between public knowledge, public opinion, and policymaking, and which suggests that the importance of public knowledge of crime and criminal justice has been overstated.

In my thesis, lay people’s understandings are considered social facts like any other and I hope that in the near future qualitative studies will not be seen as a rarity in this field.


Dzur, A. (2008) Democratic Professionalism, Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity and Practice. Pensylvania: Pensylvania State University Press.

Dzur, A. (2014) Repellent Institutions and the Absentee Public: Grounding Opinion in Responsibility for Punishment, in: Ryberg, J. & Roberts, J.V. (eds.) Popular Punishment: On the Normative Significance of Public Opinion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feilzer, M. (2015) Public Knowledge of Crime and Criminal Justice: The Neglected Role of Public Narratives. Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford University Press. Available at: http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935383.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935383-e-104#oxfordhb-9780199935383-e-104-note-3

Garland, D. & Sparks, R. (2000) Criminology, Social Theory and the Challenge of our times. British Journal of Criminology, 40, 189-204.

Garland, D. (2012) Punishment and Social Solidarity, in Simon, J & Sparks, R. (eds.) The Handbook of Punishment and Society. London: SAGE.

Green, D.A. (2009) Feeding Wolves: Punitiveness and Culture. European Journal of Criminology, 6(6), 517-536.

Keijser, J.W. (2014) Penal Theory and Popular Opinion: The Deficiencies of Direct Engagement, in: Ryberg, J. & Roberts, J.V. (eds.) Popular Punishment: On the Normative Significance of Public Opinion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maruna, S. & King, A. (2004) Public opinion and community penalties, in: Bottom, T.; Rex, S. & G Robinson (eds.) Alternatives to Prison: Options for an Insecure Society. Willan Cullompton.

Roberts, J.V. & Hough, M. (2005) Understanding public attitudes to criminal justice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Roberts, J. V. (2014) Clarifying the Significance of Public Opinion for Sentencing Policy and Practice, in: Ryberg, J. & Roberts, J.V. (eds.) Popular Punishment: On the Normative Significance of Public Opinion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, P.H. (2014) The Proper Role of Community in Determining Criminal Liability and Punishment, in: Ryberg, J. & Roberts, J.V. (eds.) Popular Punishment: On the Normative Significance of Public Opinion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s