Firstly, there is the issue of age in studying youth offenders. This can cause several problems for a researcher. In terms of access, victims of youth offending are usually youths themselves, and there is no readily available list of victims for researchers to use; this makes it difficult to obtain a representative and insightful sample. Also, due to age, there may be issues of gaining consent from parents and this causes further issues as some may be unwilling for their children to participate.
For example, in the British Crime Survey they exclude under 16s to avoid these problems, but as young people are often at the centre of crime in terms of victims and offenders this removes a very important group. Secondly, the very nature of victim surveys is to probe into areas that may be sensitive to a person who has been a victim of crime. Researchers have to be especially aware of this when surveying young people. Due to the possible distress that may be caused, it may be inappropriate to ask young people about certain issues, such as being victims of violent or sexual crime.
Surveys on these issues try to overcome this ethical problem by asking older respondents about their experiences when they were younger. However, retrospective data relies on the respondent’s memory and poses problems of validity. Thirdly, many self-report studies (such as victim surveys) concentrate on the reporting of less serious offences. Due to fear of the possible consequences, few people will admit to a serious crime, even if anonymous, but most will acknowledge minor law breaking.
This is a particular problem when studying youth offenders because of their relationship to gangs and delinquent subcultures. People may fear for their safety if considered to be a “grass” by local youth gangs. Therefore, the inclusion of large numbers of trivial offences can lead to distorted results. Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the strengths and weaknesses of using observation to investigate the judicial process As Item A suggests, courts are open to the public.
This means that unlike with many other aspects of crime, an observer can gain access relatively easily. This is especially important for observation as it removes any barriers to the research subject. It also means that the researcher can sit and observe without drawing attention to themselves. There may be other members of public present and the observer will just blend into the background. This increases the validity of the observations as those in court will act normally and their behaviour will be unaffected by the fact that they are being watched.
This is a very important strength, using observation in most other areas of research into crime and deviance can be limited as those being observed are often liable to alter behaviour if thought they are being watched. Taking notes during cases is also possible without raising any alarms, as the observer may just appear to be a journalist. Although, video or even sound recording is forbidden in a court room so researchers are limited in their options to record data.
However, if the case is of high-profile, there may be crowds of people trying to gain access to the public seating and the researcher may be crowded out. More importantly, as Item A says, some important aspects of court proceedings are not in fact open to the public. For example, decisions about sentencing often take place privately in the judge’s ‘retiring rooms’. This has limitations for an observer as they are unable to gain insight into the final, and arguably most important, part of a case.
Another important point is that during these private situations judges and other members of the judicial process are more likely to be ‘off-guard’ and therefore express their true feeling, but researchers can’t take advantage of this. On the other hand, during the official court proceedings impression management may mean that only the ‘professional side’ is observable. An important weakness of using observations to study the judicial process is that researchers have no control at all over the time taken by the justice system.
This means that observations can often be very time consuming with court cases sometimes taking weeks or months to be resolved. This means the researcher may spend literally hours or days of wasted time waiting for something important to happen. Legal processes are also sometimes very complex and involve technical legal terminology, an observer watching has no way of asking any questions to develop an understanding of what is taking place. This may cause them to misunderstand the proceedings and this will therefore distort their research.
Furthermore, unless trials being observed are short, it is going to be difficult to observe more than few trials. This undermines the representativeness of the research, something that positivists, with their concern for a scientific approach, would be unsatisfied with. Similarly, it would be very difficult to record courtroom behaviour in a very standardised way, undermining the reliability of the study. Observing criminal behaviour, especially covertly, often involves substantial ethical problems of deceit, lack of permission and confidentiality.
However, observing the judicial process doesn’t involve any ethical problems even if research is covert because the trial is open to the public. The only time ethical issues such as anonymity may be of concern is when a trial involves children. In this situation the observer may be forced to alter their research, for example by using false identities. As courtrooms are relatively small and enclosed spaces, an observer monitor everything that goes on fairly easily. In contrast, observing other parts of the criminal justice system such as the police is more difficult, as the nature of the job means they are spread out across many areas.