U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

The Overlooked Role of Jails in the Discussion of Legitimacy: Implications for Trust and Procedural Justice

Date Published
April 11, 2023


Correctional facilities are responsible for maintaining a safe and orderly environment. Jails in particular face unique challenges in fulfilling that goal because their populations are fluid and conditions can be relatively chaotic.

For jail staff, a critical tool for maintaining safety and order is the legitimacy of the jail and its staff in the eyes of its population. Legitimacy, in this context, is an incarcerated individual’s belief that officers are motivated to listen to and follow an agency’s directives out of both a sense of responsibility to that agency and its authority over the larger community.[1]

A correctional facility, or any governmental agency for that matter, enhances its legitimacy when community members view it as acting in a just manner toward others. That concept, known as procedural justice, focuses on how an individual’s perceptions of legitimacy impact that individual’s behavior.[2] Research consistently shows that an institutionalized individual’s sense of the legitimacy of the institution and those who run it is a critical driver of cooperation with authority.[3] Legitimacy and procedural justice are powerful facilitators of compliance.

A Need to Focus the Legitimacy Lens on Jails

Studies of the prevalence and impact of legitimacy and procedural justice have been conducted throughout the criminal justice system, but relatively few have focused on jails.4 At least 4.9 million people are jailed each year, making jails a central piece of our criminal justice system.5 Despite the looming presence of jails in U.S. society, few scholars have explored life inside them, and even fewer have explored the role of legitimacy in jail settings.[6]

Our understanding of legitimacy in the criminal justice system comes largely from studies of police-citizen interactions, with some additional research on legitimacy in the courts.[7] This article looks at the potential of legitimacy to help maintain order and stability in jails. It also examines how, to that same end, procedural justice can be a vital tool for correctional officers and deputies.

Given the generally more fluid and volatile nature of jail environments than prisons, procedural justice may be even more important for jails as they address the needs of individuals who are adjusting to incarceration. Jails also have the potential to enhance legitimacy across the entire justice system. More research is needed to understand whether, and to what extent, procedural justice applied in a correctional facility can enhance the legitimacy of law enforcement and the courts, as well as the facility itself.

Legitimacy, Cooperation, and Procedural Justice

To be effective, institutions of social control, such as policing or corrections, depend on the cooperation and compliance of members of the communities that they serve and protect. Crime reduction strategies are typically imposed from the top down on communities by police, and within the closed environments of correctional facilities by correctional administrators and officers.[8] But in the broader context, protecting community safety and security requires cooperation and engagement of all interested parties. Both bottomup and top-down communications among public and other agencies, the public, advocates, and the population of incarcerated individuals are integral to promoting legitimacy in a correctional facility.

Legitimacy of the criminal justice system is important because persons who perceive those entities and systems as legitimate are more likely to abide by their decisions.[9] Research has concluded that legal authorities can maintain an image of legitimacy in the eyes of the public if their decisions are viewed as being made fairly.[10] Thus, legitimacy contributes to the willingness of community members (in this instance, incarcerated individuals) to cooperate with institutions of social control (the jail).

Legitimacy goes to the heart of the question, “Why do people cooperate with authorities and obey the law?” One answer could be that people do so after considering the potential penalties for violating the law and other forms of non-compliance. Another possible answer is that the shared belief among affected parties in the legitimacy of the law and the agencies charged with maintaining order and security leads to cooperation with those agencies and obedience to the laws.

The work of scholars has also sparked a broader discussion of the relationship between legitimacy and procedural justice in policing. Discussions of police legitimacy focus primarily on psychological explanations of why citizens comply with the law. Procedural justice, on the other hand, focuses on process. That is, it concerns the way that police or others within the criminal justice system can exercise their authority in a fair and just manner by following procedures that consider the quality of both the treatment of citizens and the decision-making during police–citizen encounters. Key components of procedural justice include giving individuals a voice in the process, neutrality, quality of treatment, and trustworthiness.11 They are also fundamental qualities of a police-community partnership in the co-production of public safety.

Legitimacy and Corrections

Drawing on the work of Tom Tyler, applications of legitimacy in corrections have historically focused on compliance and self-regulation on the part of an incarcerated individual. [12] Those studies proceeded on the assumption that the use of authority in a procedurally fair manner (procedural justice) will increase compliance and advance the argument that perceptions of legitimacy are important for maintaining a safe and secure prison environment. This suggests that corrections officers who assert their authority or respond to challenges inappropriately may ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the officers’ (and by association, the institution’s) authority. As a result, such actions can lead to additional rule-breaking and create an unsafe environment for incarcerated individuals and other officers.[13]

Methods of measuring legitimacy in prisons are inconsistent. Most researchers, however, assess it as an officer characteristic based on others’ perceptions of fairness, effectiveness, trustworthiness, support, and honesty.14 One study found that the incarcerated population’s perceptions of the treatment they received during their most recent encounters with correctional officers had an impact on how they perceived the legitimacy of those officers.15 When present, legitimacy reduced the propensity for nonviolent misconduct by incarcerated individuals.16 Another study found that legitimacy influenced incarcerated individuals’ decisions to comply with facility rules.[17]

A better understanding of how legitimacy works can not only contribute to safer and more secure prisons, it can also enhance knowledge of the role of legitimacy in the broader criminal justice system.

A past study assessed perceptions of legitimacy as they relate to the criminal justice system.[18] Another examined the perceived legitimacy of the criminal justice system in terms of attitudes toward the institutions themselves and practitioners within them.[19] Both studies found that implementing legitimacy-building policies, such as procedurally fair treatment in correctional facilities, could improve compliance during and after incarceration.

Those findings are important to our understanding of the prison experience; however, our collective understanding of legitimacy within the criminal justice system is hindered by the lack of such research concerning jails. Thousands of people cycle through American jails and for many, incarceration in jail is a relatively brief experience. But for some, particularly for persons who are part of a racial or ethnic minority group or those with a lower socioeconomic[]status, incarceration may be lengthy and highly burdensome.[20]

Aside from length of stay, various factors can influence a person’s compliance and behavior upon release. These factors include the perceived fairness of one’s bail amount, a decision on release from jail, and the way one is treated (that is, procedural justice) inside the institution. Perceptions of fairness and trust in the system are just as important during the corrections stage as they are in a policing context. Corrections practices would greatly benefit from an increased understanding of how jail experiences (for example, booking, court appearances, and incarceration) affect the larger criminal justice system and individual outcomes.

Jails Are Under-researched but Critically Important

The size of the jail population is often overlooked in national discussions on corrections conditions and reforms. An individual’s jail stay can be a traumatic experience characterized by transient populations, confusion, disorder and instability, physical danger, and psychological harm. These factors can significantly shape how an incarcerated individual perceives the legitimacy of the jail environment and its authorities.

Common features of an individual’s jail experience may make fostering legitimacy within jails more difficult than in prisons. Jails tend to be chaotic; given the typical closer proximity in time to their arrest, individuals coming into jail may be more likely to be intoxicated or dealing with withdrawal from a controlled substance.[21]

In addition, jail incarceration is stressful. Suicide accounts for over 30% of the deaths in jail custody and is the leading cause of deaths in jail.[22] The suicide rate in local jails is around 50 per 100,000, compared to fewer than 30 per 100,000 in state run prisons.[23] A number of factors could account for the higher rate of suicides in jails, including the likelihood of overcrowding within the jail and an incarcerated individual’s elevated stress levels due to the life disruption resulting from their arrest and incarceration.[24]

Correctional officers and deputies need to ensure stability and order in that chaotic environment, not only to protect physical safety, but also to aid the wellness of individuals as they navigate court proceedings or transition to serving their sentence. The impact of procedural justice on overall wellness of those in the facility requires further research.

Jail staff may find it more challenging than their prison counterparts to consistently project an atmosphere of stability rooted in procedural justice. Jail staff have a relatively short time with individuals in jails (the average stay in jail is just over one month) and have no control over the quality of an incarcerated individual’s prior interactions with police and court officials. In addition, correctional officers and deputies often must compete with the overall often chaotic climate of a jail facility.

Our research uncovered only one study that specifically addressed officer legitimacy in jails. The researchers surveyed individuals housed in a Florida jail. They found that procedural justice was a critical driver of an individual’s decisions to comply with the facility’s rules. Procedural justice was the single greatest predictor of compliance; it was even more influential than an individual’s history of misconduct.[25] This emphasizes and supports the role of procedural justice in promoting cooperation with correctional officers in a particular jail setting. The presence and impact of procedural justice in other jails require further research.


Jails take custody of individuals who are often in the midst of a chaotic and stressful experience. Although an individual’s time in jail may be brief, jail leadership and staff can make a positive and pivotal impact on the trajectory of these individuals’ lives.

In other correctional contexts, research has shown that policy and practice grounded in legitimacy and procedural justice can help deliver that positive impact. Evidence suggests that the same positive impact can happen in jails, despite the chaos that characterizes many jail environments. However, this requires further research.

Jails are an integral part of the criminal justice system. To the extent that one agency can reflect on the legitimacy of the system as a whole, jails can be linchpins of systemic legitimacy.

Date Published: April 11, 2023