In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Legitimacy

  • Introduction
  • Legitimacy, Lapses and Abuses of Discretion, and Errors of Justice
  • Legitimacy in Policing
  • Legitimacy in Prosecution
  • Legitimacy in Adjudication and Sentencing
  • Legitimacy in Corrections
  • The Future of Legitimacy

Criminology Legitimacy
Brian Forst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0134


Legitimacy is the essential but ambiguous foundation of the criminal justice system: essential because the system cannot function without legitimacy and ambiguous because there is no consensus on what it means, precisely. It is a concept that applies not just to the criminal justice system and its processes, but also to political institutions and processes generally—primarily public institutions, but private ones too. Despite the central importance of legitimacy to the effective and fair functioning of the criminal justice system, the scholarly attention that has been paid to the concept has been remarkably scarce. The information and citations that follow examine the importance of legitimacy and attempt to sort out its more confusing aspects through the lenses of a variety of scholarly perspectives. In the process, information about these articles and books may help interested people to learn how legitimacy provides a foundation for policing, prosecution, adjudication, and corrections, and how each of these components of the criminal justice system in turn shape both the perceptions and realities of criminal justice legitimacy.

Definitions of Legitimacy

Legitimacy is generally defined as the property of being valid or proper, either as set forth in the law or in the eyes of cognizant citizens, or both. But legitimacy is more: a valued quality of social institutions and political processes, valued because it enhances social cohesion within those institutions and lends support for the processes. It is generally valued more for public than for private institutions; in the latter, the concept of “goodwill” has parallels to legitimacy in the public sector. Legitimacy is valued especially for public institutions that rely heavily on state authority to conduct their work. This is particularly true for criminal justice institutions, because the burden associated with their monopoly of authority to use force, often deadly, to enforce the law demands the highest levels of legitimacy.

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