I would give up… using criminal justice to solve social problems

In 2014 I was asked, as part of the CCJS Justice Matters initiative to think about a criminal justice practice, policy or institution to abolish or abstain from. This was my response.

The article was orginally first published here: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/i-would-give-using-criminal-justice-solve-social-problems Other contributions to this debate can be read here: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/what-bit-criminal-justice-could-you-live-without

When faced by the challenge of identifying ‘what bit of the criminal justice’ I would give up I was tempted to refuse.  For me it is a bit like asking what methods of capital punishment would you abolish?  By focus on one aspect, and by identifying it as particularly problematic, other aspects are, unintentionally, legitimised. So my first reaction is that the whole criminal justice system is so toxic, (with its single solution – state inflicted blame and pain – offered to every single problem it confronts), that we should not pick and choose but abolish the whole system, lock stock and barrel.

But on reflection there is something specific I think we need to focus our energies on abolishing, what Joelandeuit Beijerse and Rene Kool have referred to as the ‘traitorous temptation of criminal justice’. In contemporary society it is clear we face a whole range of social problems which need solutions.  The common sense of our age has increasingly been to conceptualise these problems in a manner that makes criminal justice the obvious response. Homelessnesspovertypre-natal caresquattinghungerprotestpoor mental health, drug use and abuse and the failure to buy a TV Licence are all seen as problems best solved through criminal justice interventions leading in many cases to the infliction of punishment through imprisonment. Readers of this blog would most likely agree that these are all areas where criminal justice interventions could (and should) be rolled back, even possibly abolished, but what about killing and sexual violence?  Surely we need the criminal justice system to protect us from those serious harms?

Distorted perceptions

Death is something we all legitimately want protection from. But our perceptions of dangers are highly distorted. For example although the media focus on violent murder in 2012/13 three times (30) as many people were killed in fatal ‘police related road traffic incidents’ than were murdered by firearms (10).  Even if we look at the total number of murders, 551, it is a much smaller number than the number of suicides, 6,045; preventable deaths in hospitals, estimated to be 11,859; occupational exposure to asbestos, which resulted in 6,846 deaths; smoking, responsible for 79,100 deaths and alcohol which contributed a further 8,748 premature deaths.

Criminal justice by focusing on one, relatively small, cause of avoidable premature deaths, deflects attention away from far greater harms. These avoidable harms which kill far more people are as a direct consequence placed in a ‘lesser’ category and are allowed to continue either unregulated or subject to ‘voluntary’ codes or light touch regulation. They are not so serious. But their victims are no less dead than a murder victim. But even when it comes to murder where the criminal justice system claims success its focus is on individual blame. However as Danny Dorling has highlighted, murders are not just random events, their distribution and causation have geographical and social roots. Whilst the richest 20% of the population saw the incidence of murder decline over the last 20 years of the 20th century by 5.5%, the poorest 20% experienced a 36.5% increase. Criminal justice ignores both the wider social context in which murder takes places and the opportunities this knowledge has for reducing future harm.

Gendered and sexual violence is a major social problem on an epidemic scale. But despite the successful campaigning of feminists resulting in radical changes to the law concerning rape and other sexual offences, the criminal justice system continues to fail victims or hold perpetrators to account.  Even official figures, which are likely to be an underestimate, suggest that only about 1% of rapes result in convictions. The overwhelming majority of those who perpetrate sexual violence do so with complete impunity under a criminal justice regulated system. Far from protecting the victims of sexual violence it has consistently re-victimised them and protected the perpetrators. Even the token number convicted and incarcerated are disproportionally drawn from the social groups whom criminal justice target, the poor, those with learning difficulties and black and ethnic minority communities – the usual suspects.

Resisting temptation

By falling for criminal justice’s ‘temptation’ and accepting the myth that, at least for those behaviours considered to be serious crimes, criminal justice exists to protect us we effectively legitimise it as a proper and effective solution to (at least some) social problems. Whilst this legitimisation does not lead to any refocusing of the criminal justice on the most significant harms we face it does reinforce the legitimacy of the criminal justice systems continued disproportionate focus on the poor, homeless, ill, non-white communities, and socially excluded. Not only are we ‘traitorously’ exposing these groups and individuals to the pain infliction which is the ultimate impact of criminal justice interventions but at the same time we are not protecting society from those individuals and behaviours which represent the greatest threats to our well being.

Social problems, be they homelessness or sexual violence, premature unnecessary death or poverty, need solutions. Creative solutions to these problems need to be based on social justice not criminal justice. By abolishing the ‘traitorous temptation of criminal justice’ and rejecting criminal justice solutions we can redirect the considerable resources currently focused on inflicting pain on some of the most vulnerable in our society to more constructive and productive solutions.

Beijerse and Kool’s paper, ‘The Traitorous Temptation of Criminal Justice: Deceptive Appearences?  The Dutch Women’s Movement, Violence against Women and the criminal justice System’ was first presented to a European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control Conference in 1988 and was republished in 2016 in Beyond Criminal Justice: An anthology of Abolitionist Papers, Edited by JM Moore, B Rolston, D Scott and M Tomlinson

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s