Justice is, most often, a synonym for revenge. When people cry for justice, what they really want is for the perpetrator to suffer, at a minimum, to the degree the victims of that person’s crimes have suffered. This is, of course, hugely problematic. What is being demanded is that the government that represents the victims become the chief torturer and executioner.

People with strongly held religious beliefs are often those that cry the loudest for this kind of justice. It would appear that they do not believe that the God, or gods, that they worship can be trusted. Perhaps a merciful deity will forgive the criminal and allow them access to eternal bliss, what then?

The idea that convicted criminals should expect to endure all kinds of assault, including sexual assault, while incarcerated, is a common subtext for all kinds of comedy and drama on the subject of justice. So if the government is not willing to engage in the practice of torture, they are expected to place their convicted criminals in a context where the torture will be by proxy.

One of the most serious, and obvious problems with this idea of justice is what happens when an individual is wrongfully convicted. Wrongful convictions are, unfortunately, inevitable. Humanity has yet to devise a justice system that ensures that no one is wrongfully convicted.

Another serious problem with this approach to justice is how it applies to criminal acts which are not deemed serious enough to warrant permanent incarceration. The science is pretty clear, “hurt people, hurt people”. If you create a system of incarceration that traumatizes inmates, there is a very good chance that at least some of those inmates are going to be far more damaged, and as a result far more dangerous, when they leave, than when they entered the system.

3 thoughts on “Justice

  1. The psychology and sociology behind this is basic first year stuff–and that’s what’s so frustrating.
    The concept of revenge should be removed from the system entirely. I’ve never been the victim of more than petty crime (short cons run at retail stores when I was a cashier). I must say, the last time it happened to me (more than 20 years ago now) I really wanted to reach across the counter and punch the idiot who tried, but as I thought about that impulse I realized it was dead wrong–and I knew better (see basic first year psych/socio). It would have no long term effect on the behaviour of the con artist.

    Retributive justice, incarceration as punishment, does not work–it never has, and yes, the science is clear. Anyone who’s ever provided any training, human or animal, can tell you that punishment (not to be confused with negative reinforcement) is the LEAST effective form of behaviour modification short of doing nothing. Punishment does not change or maintaining long term behaviour patterns.
    Trust, positive and negative reinforcement are effective, but you can’t use those techniques effectively if your societal focus is revenge!
    And that’s why recidivism in punitive/retributive penal systems can be upwards of 40% (as it is in the US system).

    Restorative/rehabilitative focused systems, like Sweden’s, reduces the recidivism rate dramatically (unless it changed in the last 20 years, it’s less than 16% in Sweden). And they accomplish this by doing the strangest thing…treat people like people, give the opportunity to experience a better way, to be a member of society rather than an outcast, and lo, they behave in a social manner.

    So Justice (capital J), as a concept–blind balancing? what do we really mean by Justice?

    The scales for most criminal activity were well out of balance BEFORE the criminal act took place. So, how is that redressed in a punitive system? If we want actual balance then we give the criminal actor the REAL opportunity to move out of the circumstance that made anti-social behaviour acceptable to them.

  2. I think the justice system should focus on healing for the victims of crime, and rehabilitation for the criminal. There is a cost to healing, and criminals should bear what part of that cost that they can reasonably bear. If you defrauded your victims, your assets be put to the task of reimbursing your victims, where possible, but not in a way that makes it impossible for you to rejoin, and eventually contribute in a meaningful way to society.

    There are some debts that simply cannot be re-payed, and in most cases where there has been a serious crime, that is the case. In those cases government has a role to play, both in helping victims recover from crimes, and in helping them heal from the damage caused by those crimes. Why the government? Because often the government is the only institution with the resources necessary to accomplish that task.

Comments are closed.