What is justice?

Oxford Dictionary: "the maintenance of legal, moral or social principles by the exercise of authority or power; the assignment of deserved reward or punishment; just deserts".

Proverbs 22:8 "Whosoever sows injustice shall reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail".

Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount: "Judge not that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7)

The judicial oath sworn by magistrates says: I swear that I will  do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

Who dispenses it, and who do they dispense it to?  

In this country highly educated and still predominantly white male judges (though this is changing) deal with about 5% of criminal cases, dispensing ‘justice' to predominantly poor, ill-educated, dysfunctional young men, many from black and minority ethnic groups.

95% of cases are dealt with by unpaid local magistrates (still also known as Justices of the Peace, a public duty dating from the 14th century), somewhat more representative of the people they judge, almost 50/50 male and female, from a variety of backgrounds and occupations.

But is this ‘judgment by your peers' and should it be? How do you balance the principles of being legally competent against judgement by your peers? 

Equality before the law?

Should justice be absolutely predictable in the way of the Old Testament, i.e. "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", or should sentences differ because of the circumstances of the perpetrator and of the offence itself?  Is the outcome more important than the intent?  For example, your car skids on a patch of ice and hits a child in a push chair, and it dies (likely sentence: a fine or community penalty for careless driving); a young man steals a car and drives recklessly, hits a child in a push chair, and it dies (likely sentence: prison sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, anything up to ten years).  Outcome identical - or is it? How does the mother feel in each of those cases? How should we regard the driver? Why did they get such  different sentences when the outcome was the same? What is the ‘public perception' about justice and ‘just deserts' in such cases?

Justice for victims of crime

How does our adversarial system affect victims?  Who is a victim of crime? And what are the  pros and cons of involving victims in justice? Does punishing one person help another? What do you know about Restorative Justice (www.restorativejustice.org.uk).   

Restorative Justice is a process whereby:

  1. All the parties with a stake in a particular conflict or offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the conflict or offence and its implications for the future, and;
  2. Offenders have the opportunity to acknowledge the impact of what they have done and to make reparation and victims have the opportunity to have their harm or loss acknowledged and amends made."

Mad, bad or sad?

Should we demand that people with mental health problems are dealt with outside the CJS?  Should we demand that people with addictions, dysfunctional family lives, deprived childhoods, impoverished backgrounds, are dealt with by social services?

Of the current 80,000 people in our prisons (far more than any other country in Europe per capita), that would account for an estimated 80%. We could then spend time and resources on the 20% who really need reform and rehabilitation.  What is the function of the prison and do we really need them?


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