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Citizens' Jury: Deliberative democracy goes online

Insights Perspective


Sunday 14 February 2021

2020 was a year of unconventional working practices at Crest (as everywhere): battling for WiFi router supremacy, muting calls whilst your family asked if you wanted a cup of tea, and even joining colleagues for virtual yoga.

And in October, Crest took democracy online, holding a Citizens’ Jury over Zoom with 12 members of the public from across England and Wales. It was potentially one of very few held last year and undoubtedly one of the first of its kind to be held virtually.

As part of our research into the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system, we wanted to hold a Citizens’ Jury to see what the general public would do given the opportunity to decide. But how do you bring together 12 individuals from across the country (divided into tiers with varying rates of infection and different social restrictions) into one room for a process that typically lasts at least a couple of days? Well, the short answer is you can’t. So instead we recruited 12 members of the public to participate virtually in the comfort of their own homes over the course of just one afternoon.

What we did

Having all managed to log on, with some participants helped by family members, and with others sitting at their kitchen table or on their sofa - and even one or two in bed - we began discussing what to do about the criminal justice system.

Our team gave a presentation detailing the criminal justice system, aiming to bring the participants up to a decent level of knowledge (in a short space of time) and focus their minds on the four elements of the system (police, courts, prisons, and probation). This was followed by a justice ‘pub’ quiz, in which participants were asked to answer questions on the criminal justice system before COVID-19, how it fared during the pandemic, and what our modelling suggested would happen in the future.

Following a break (during which participants provided their own refreshments), we divided the group into four breakout rooms; one for each part of the system, to deliberate on what should be done to solve the problems experienced during the pandemic, and what we should do in the future. Every participant was able to deliberate in each room. This was followed by a final plenary discussion in which participants were asked to pick and explain their priorities for the system, as well as vote on their top three options.

Before and after the event, participants were asked to complete an identical survey on their attitudes towards the criminal justice system, as well as their pandemic priorities, so we could track how the session had challenged and changed their opinions.

Deliberation in the COVID-age

People from across the country do not come together often to discuss issues that matter to them and to society. Deliberative events are often seen as notable and exceptional processes, for example the Climate Assembly held earlier this year. It does our culture of democracy no credit that bringing people together to discuss important questions is not more commonplace, especially when it concerns how justice is administered on behalf of the public. We often talk about policing by consent in the UK but how much is really understood about why, when, and how the public gives their consent?

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we firmly believe that bringing members of the public together does have value, even if just for one rainy afternoon in October. Our jurors clearly wanted the police to be a more visible presence in their communities, and they are deeply concerned about the delays faced by defendants and victims in criminal courts, as well as the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of prisoners. But they would not have been able to express these opinions had they not had the opportunity to do so, or had access to the information they used to engage with the process.

There are clear lessons here for deliberation in the COVID-age. Yes, you may have to tell someone to unmute. Yes, people may talk over one another. Yes, their child may run into the room. But we managed to get a representative group of people into one room and gain valuable insight into what the public thinks about the criminal justice system.

All we had to do was find 12 willing participants and set up the Zoom meeting.

If you want to know more about how Crest delivers deliberative democracy online or about our findings please get in touch.


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