Social scientists have long investigated the social, cultural, and psychological forces that shape perceptions of fairness. A vast literature on procedural justice advances a central finding: the process by which a dispute is played out is central to people’s perceptions of fairness, their satisfaction with dispute outcomes, and their attributions of legitimacy. There is, however, one glaring gap in the literature. In this era of mass incarceration, studies of the attitudes of the incarcerated are strikingly rare. This article addresses this gap by drawing on unique quantitative and qualitative data to unpack the complicated nature of perceptions of fairness and justice in the prison context. These data are comprised of 1) face-to-face interviews with a random sample of men incarcerated in three California prisons; 2) a random sample of officially processed California prisoner grievances; and 3) official data provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Our mixed-methods analysis reveals that, in contrast to findings from the procedural justice scholarship, these prisoners privilege the outcomes of disputes—rather than the process—as their barometer of justice, so much so that a favorable outcome drives their assessment of how fair the process was. This finding holds among both Black and White prisoners—racial groups that in other contexts have consistently been shown to have diverse experiences with and perceptions of the criminal justice system. We argue that the precedence of actual outcomes in these men’s perceptions of fairness and in their dispute satisfaction is grounded in, among other things, the high stakes of the prison context, an argument that is confirmed by our data. Finally, we reveal that although inmates often perceive officials to be untrustworthy and their decisions to be unfair, this does not undermine the legitimacy of the rule of law or the formal protocols and institutions that undergird it, which appears to be more robust than some scholars have feared. Most broadly, these findings show the power of institutional context to structure perceptions of and responses to fairness, one of the most fundamental organizing principles of social life.
Speaker: Professor Valerie Jenness, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California - Irvine
Valerie Jenness, Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016 and, prior to that, she was a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan in 2015. She served as Dean of the School of Social Ecology from 2009 to 2015 and Chair of the Department of Criminology, Law and Society from 2001-2006. Her research has focused on prostitution, hate crime, and prison violence and grievances to explore the links between deviance and social control, the politics of crime control, social movements and social change, and corrections and public policy. She is the author of four books and many articles published in sociology, law, and criminology journals. She has been honored with awards from the American Sociological Association, Society for the Study of Social Problems, the Pacific Sociological Association, the American Society of Criminology, the Law and Society Association, the Western Society of Criminology, the University of California, and the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. Professor Jenness has served as an elected member of various professional committees and councils and she has served as an expert witness in civil litigation related to conditions of confinement in government run detention facilities.