Skip to main content

Philosophy and the Law | Criminal Justice and Social (In)Justice – 18 October 2023

Professor Nicola Lacey & William Godwin KC - Criminal Justice and Social (In)Justice
A recognition of the obstacles to achieving criminal justice in a society marked by structural injustice has been a longstanding feature of philosophical, legal and criminological literatures.  Inequalities and injustices in social attitudes to certain groups and in the distribution of resources and opportunities in fields ranging from family life, education, health care, shelter and secure employment are perhaps the most obviously relevant features of a social order.  Moreover the experience of abuse, prejudice, violence or nutritional or emotional deprivation is now understood to affect not simply economic and life opportunities but psychological and cognitive development.  The consequent threat to the legitimacy of punishment is particularly acute when the state itself bears substantial responsibility for either creating, or failing to alleviate, the relevant conditions.  Though the causal chains are complex, it is no exaggeration – nor is it inconsistent with a recognition of the role of individual agency – to speak of many injustices as criminogenic. 
Meeting the challenge of doing a measure of criminal justice in these circumstances remains important, however, because of a further consideration, and one that complicates the moral and political challenge.   This is the fact that disproportionalities in the impact of criminalisation and punishment on groups disadvantaged by injustice are matched by comparable disproportionalities in criminal victimisation.  Economically marginalised groups and those subject to racism and other forms of prejudice find themselves not only on the sharp end of the criminal justice system, but also disproportionately the victims of crime.  They also, all too often, face poor provision of criminal justice services such as policing. 
In recent decades, this longstanding challenge has been exacerbated by emerging features of political economy in the so-called advanced democracies:  notably the growth and embedding of economic inequalities.  The increase in poverty and the emergence in many relatively wealthy countries of a polarised demographic featuring a substantial minority excluded from many of the benefits of economic growth, and even of political association, has both complicated the political challenge facing democratic governments, and significantly exacerbated the injustices which had long been apparent.  In this talk, we will discuss the upshot for practitioners of these developments, considering their normative upshot and practical implications for the criminal justice, and the scope given by criminal law and procedure to adjust the application of the law in light of the impact of background injustice.