In the midst of the marking mountain (currently at Everest base camp), it is nice to reflect on another aspect of my role as a lecturer in criminology – teaching. In between marking I was thinking about putting together a seminar to focus on the meaning of justice and how this relates to broader structural inequalities, human rights and the need for reform. This is to contribute to my new module on ‘community justice’, as it is a place where I want to examine these terms as separate concepts, and also as a term which encompasses punishment delivered outside the prison walls, in spaces where people live, work and interact with others.
I always think it is important for students to critically examine accepted definitions and in this case, the many social constructions of justice. The article I came across, ‘Discussing Alternatives to Justice’ (edited by Allison and McMahon, 2015) very nicely presents a series of debates, discussions and poses important questions which require us to re-examine the criminal justice system and our society. It is presented as a series academics presenting radical changes they would make to shift us away from a punitive, ineffective and socially harmful system.
Professor Steve Tombs starts off the debates asking for an ‘alternative to the corporation’ – describing is as an ‘amoral, essentially destructive entity which causes far more physical, social and economic harm than the incivilities upon which criminal justice systems overwhelmingly concentrate’ (Tombs, 2015: 3). There is a clear need to reconsider our notion of what is criminal when we examine those events which lead to extensive social harms, but also the social structures and policies which enable these harms to occur and accept a muted response from our justice system. One theme of Tomb’s article is the need to shift the ownership and governance of services from the private sector to the public sector, to improve compliance and adherence to regulations and safety concerns. He also demands a need to challenge claims of efficiency and effectiveness – anyone seeing recent developments in probation and the consequences of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda should also be asking some pertinent questions about such claims. This requires a radical shift from our acceptance of remaining a consumerist society, and placing trust in corporations to understand there are many other ways to structure economics and the distribution of capital, such as social and employee owned enterprises and co-operatives. Bell (2015) continues this theme with a rallying call to shift from neoliberal politics which have ‘fuelled the current penal crisis, characterised by mass incarceration and the criminalisation of social problems’ (p.4). For me, these two articles already present different ideas, debates and reinforce the need for students to consider crime and justice in the context of social, political and economic systems. This would then also enable a more critical examination of justice – especially a criminal justice system which is harmful, punitive and ineffective. Bell (ibid) aptly critiques neoliberalist claim of freedom of choice as misrepresentations which actually enable corporations to use the Earth’s resources without consideration for the harms caused to consumers, who accept this risk in favour of cheap goods and services and the promise of more to come. She advocates a participatory democracy in all forms of life, including penology, to allow offenders to be part of the discussion on ways they can redress harms and shift the notion of justice from being predominantly punitive, to restorative and reparative.
Pike, (2015) then provides a more focused policy idea change – to build more schools and fewer prisons. This echoes the theme of this edited collection, to pose radical changes, and reinforces the need to understand crime as a reflection of an unequal society. There is a clear focus on prevention, not punishment, a need to rethink justice as a reactive force, to a more stabilising force (Rawls, 1971). Education is presented as vital to creating a more fair society and to stop the discrimination against the disadvantaged who are disproportionately present in our victimisation figures and our justice system.
In a discussion close to my own interests, Drake and Samota (2014) discuss the need for collective capacity in policy making, to understand the impact of the apathy which has allowed a rhetoric of being tough on crime to dominate, and indeed to be overtaken by the language of war and conflict as the only adequate response. This collective needs to comprise academic criminologists, practitioners, volunteers – those understanding crime and justice from a range of perspectives to come together and share expertise, engage the public in these debates and stimulate discussion on viable alternatives. This would be a firmer foundation for policy making, compared to the knee jerk reactions of ministers attempt to appease public outrage, fuelled by media misrepresentations. Drake and Samota (ibid) also refer to the misunderstanding of justice among the public and the need for collective hubs to counteract the misleading news and spin which feeds populist punitiveness and the assumptions that justice must be retributive and deterrent, and little else.
It may seem at first glance these are complex ideas for undergraduates to grapple with, but with guided discussion, debate and using examples to illustrate what is meant by social harms, injustices, ineffectiveness, I think they could form an important foundation for learning about the criminal justice system, and what we understand as criminal. It is with these ideas in mind, that students can then perhaps understand the need to critically examine what they then learn in their studies, and they also chime with younger generations broader concerns about inequalities, social justice and social harms. It may well be the case with the rising engagement in politics, concerns about the environment and the impact of consumerist lifestyles, that these ideas are not so complex or radical as they might at first seem.
Allison, C and McMahon, W. (2015) Discussing Alternatives to Criminal Justice, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, London.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Harvard University.