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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.
In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children. At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.
So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes” allegedly for a relationship or something serious. The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of. In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold.
The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing. Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”. For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.
Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different. In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened. Seven people went missing. How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants. At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick! One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!
In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it. I shall stand on what we know. He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques. He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career. A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales. Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations.
What about the wider picture? To put the whole case in some perspective. The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing. In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms. A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone? In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue. The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy. The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of. Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers. The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible. In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising. In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology. The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society.
After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away.
Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to
extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan
Fiske, London, Routledge.
 A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name!