An internal Justice Department report says Canadians have little confidence in the courts and the prison system -- and the best way to counter those perceptions is through education.
Opposition critics argue that message is at odds with the Conservative justice agenda, which they say simply exploits public misunderstanding of justice issues by enacting tough-on-crime measures that can be harmful.
The federal report summarizes a decade's worth of opinion polls and research, some of it unpublished, that has consistently found high confidence in the police.
But research shows Canadians also see the courts as too slow to deliver justice, and judges as handing out sentences that are too lenient.
The research indicates the public believes victims are too often ignored in the justice system, and that prisons do a poor job of rehabilitating offenders.
The study, prepared for a policing symposium last month in Ottawa, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"The public generally believes that sentences are too lenient and that the corrections system is not doing a great job of rehabilitating offenders," says the 13-page report.
Author Charlotte Fraser, a Justice Department employee, notes that Canadians' generally low levels of confidence in the justice system are similar to those of citizens in other western countries.
Such views have remained relatively stable over the last 10 years, even as crime rates have fallen.
"Canadians have less confidence that the CJS (criminal justice system) is helping victims of crime," Fraser concludes.
"Canadians also have less confidence in some functions of the courts and corrections system, particularly sentencing practices, providing justice quickly, rehabilitating offenders and releasing the right offenders at the right time."
The report links the poor opinion of Canadians to a "lack of understanding of the specific mandates of courts and corrections," and says public education is the favoured approach to correcting misperceptions.
The Conservative government has made some elements of public opinion the cornerstone of its justice policy, imposing mandatory minimum sentences to remove discretion from judges, and promoting a victims' charter of rights.
"It's legislation by popular opinion on many complex justice issues," says MP Francoise Boivin, the NDP's justice critic.
"The way that the Conservatives have been acting on criminal justice bills, it's been kind of catering to these impressions."
Boivin, a lawyer who once practised criminal law, says the justice system can be improved, especially in its treatment of victims. But Canadians also need to be better educated about the system rather than "just exacerbating their preconceived impressions."
Media reports and the Conservatives' own claims about criminal justice can distort reality, she said.
The Liberal justice critic said he was surprised that public opinion has remained static even as crime rates have fallen.
"The empirical evidence in terms of crime rates and rates of re-offence don't justify the pessimism that appears to exist," MP Sean Casey, a lawyer, said in an interview from Charlottetown.
The Conservative justice agenda, he said, is "playing on perceptions, stereotypes and fears as opposed to the evidence."
The study notes the often-reported phenomenon that much crime goes unreported, but says only about 15 per cent of Canadians decline to report crime because they lack faith in the justice system.
"The three primary reasons people report crimes are when they are serious in nature, involve substantial loss or physical injury, or when insurance payments require them to do so," says the study, citing research on the failure to report many crimes.
A spokesman for Justice Canada, Andrew Gowing, said the report was "an opportunity to synthesize existing research on public confidence in the Canadian criminal justice system."
"At this time, no further steps are planned."