Citizen Participation

In a democracy, we strive to strike a balance between freedom and order. Imposing crime control measures may make us feel safer but also may endanger our civil liberties. Seeking to keep these competing democratic values in a state of equilibrium is a constant struggle. This ongoing conflict between crime control and due process values takes place within the context of a justice system that is unique in the world.

Citizens, often a forgotten component of criminal justice, play a variety of important roles in American justice, and their involvement is crucial to the functioning of the justice system in a democratic society.

Lobbying elected officials

Citizens affect criminal justice policy through interest groups. Representatives of interest groups lobby lawmakers to pass legislation favoring the interests of the groups they represent. Michael Hallett and Dennis Palumbo, criminal justice scholars, discovered that many big and powerful interest groups get involved in legislative lobbying at the federal level. The American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have the most influence at this level. Some single‐issue groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), also exercise political clout on certain issues. At the state level, Hallett and Palumbo point out, criminal justice policy is made by small numbers of influential state legislators, administrators of criminal justice agencies, and representatives of criminal justice professionals. Interest groups having the most influence are those representing police and prosecutors.

Influencing judicial policymaking

Poor people and racial minority citizens exert more influence over the appellate courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, than they do over legislation. Representatives of disadvantaged groups influence court decisions by filing amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in cases. These briefs present legal arguments or facts on behalf of others.

Raising public consciousness

Interest groups raise the consciousness of the public and elected officials about criminal justice issues. One example is the National Organization for Women (NOW). It has made people aware of the problems of battered women and has succeeded in getting policy changes that made domestic violence a crime rather than a family matter.

Performing jury duty

American criminal justice exhibits a strong commitment to a jury of lay persons. Juries provide important protections against the abuse of power by legislatures, judges, and other powerful entities; bring broadly based community values to deciding criminal cases; inject common sense into criminal justice decision making; and afford citizens opportunities to learn about the law and the justice process.

Reporting crimes and testifying in criminal cases

Citizen cooperation is absolutely necessary for the apprehension and prosecution of criminals. Almost all criminal proceedings have a lay witness who is a citizen bystander or victim possessing personal knowledge that is relevant to a criminal case.

Establishing and conducting mediation

Many communities in the United States have created reparative boards. Reparative boards remove cases from the criminal courts and resolve cases through mediation in a nonadversarial manner. They are designed to save money, allow victims to participate in the justice process, and reintegrate offenders into communities.

Monitoring the criminal justice system


Civilian review boards consist of persons who aren't police officers and who assess how police departments handle citizen complaints. The boards may recommend remedial action, but they don't have the power to investigate or discipline police officers. Three‐fourths of America's largest cities have civilian review. Citizens' crime commissions are independent, privately funded agencies that serve as public watchdogs—they observe judges in courtrooms, investigate corruption throughout the justice system, and conduct research on the administration of justice. These commissions operate in more than 20 metropolitan areas in the United States.

Providing statements about harm caused by criminals

Victims of crime may influence judges' sentencing decisions. Aggravating circumstances affect sentencing, and often victim impact statements convince a judge to give the maximum sentence. These statements are a method of informing a judge about the harm caused by the crime in question. Critics argue that allowing the victim or members of the victim's family to testify at sentencing as to the harm an offender has caused is tantamount to allowing vengeance to drive the sentencing process.