>What should the purpose of the criminal justice system be?


Justice systems are different all around the world. Our ideas about justice are also quite different. Some believe in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, yet others believe we should forgive, forget and ‘turn the other cheek’.

It all comes down to what you think justice actually is and what it’s for. So what do you think? What’s the purpose of the criminal justice system? And is that right? What should it be?


  • >Its quite simple. There are many reasons for punishment – justice for the victims, hope for reform, dettering other potential criminals etc.In another discussion (which I won't go into now)it became obvious that people are not responsible for the choices they make (Anyone who says otherwise, or attempts to argue with this in anyway will be obliterated if I can be bothered).Using my own anology which will become infamous one day – Suppose a computer has a virus, and antivirus program must be applied to rectify the problem. It is not the virus's fault it did what it did, however clearly it must be stopped. Thus a person who has commited a crime must be punished to deter his brain for doing it again. This is of course, unfair to the criminal but it is absolutley neccessary for society (and probably for the crimanal themselves.This of course means that we have to forgive (if indeed there is anything to forgive), however the criminal must be punished regardless.

  • >This is completely, but it suggests nothing about how a person should be punished. I am concerned with more absolute facts. Deciding a persons punishement is completely subject, and people can argue for eternity about it.

  • >I don't know why we always sum up the reactions to wrong doing as an Old testament, New testament, scenario.But that aside.As you state in the opening post Rob, ideas of justice differ around the world, so we can therefore say that cultural and societal values determine our ideas about justice. We can also say that as soceities change, so does the way we determine justice.I would say though, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to resolve the pain of the victim and the victim's family whilst respecting the appropriate levels of punishment as defined by society in general.Therefore it is the group think of soceity (or in reality, those of law-makers, judicial figures, and other influential people) which determines the range of punitive measures, and the particular sentences should be determined by the pain it has caused the specific individual/family.That would be it's primary function.The possibility of giving lighter/no sentences to criminals based on a belief in reform should be not be a function of the criminal justice system. That should be the role of the reform system.Why can punishment and reform not go hand in hand ?The final function of the system is as Robin says, to show that justice is being served, as both a notice to other potential criminals and also to assuage any fears of an unequal soceity.

  • >Robin I think your argument about a lack of responsibility over choices is a matter of lexicon. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think you're talking more about the determinism vs free will debate here i.e. although of course a person chooses his/her actions, those choices are dictated by past experiences and their biological disposition.I would argue that the individual still holds responsibility, because, like you say they must be held to account. But I agree with what Robin says that it is about the society in whole i.e. the greater good.I definitely agree with Sean that notions of justice vary around the world, and that these differences have to be respected, hence justice must change from place to place. I also agree that a large part of justice is for the victims. I'd go further to say it's also for future potential victims, the culprit themselves, in that we should try to reform them, and also society at large in that it's comforting to know justice is being served.Unfortunately however I do not agree that the response of the justice system should be solely relative to the amount of pain caused to the victims. This is difficult to find out, and there are other isues to take into account, as the earlier discussion on justice (of about 4 days before this one) says. It would be unjust if someone were punished for something they did that was unintentional and accidental, more than something done by someone else that was intentional and deliberate.I also think that justice can be seen to be served while still incorporating some elements of reform. I'll agree that there is sometimes a trade-off, but I think that it is often a worthwhile trade-off. For instance putting a criminal into prison will be seen as justice. It may be seen as slightly less just to educate them and give them career prospects when they leave prison. But at the end of the day if you don't give them prospects to do something legitimate then what makes us think they're going to do anything but use the contacts they made in prison to further their illegal careers?

  • >The previous debate I was talking about was of Saturday May 29th

  • >While acknowledging the cultural plurality which obviously exists, I'll set out my view of what justice should be, which i basically utilitarian met by as liberal ends as possible.It's principle, overriding function should be the protection of society. In this (and not much more, it seems) I am closely aligned with Robin. This means that it should encompass, in order:1. -The temporary removal of the offender's potential to reoffend (prison, curfew orders, restrictions and so on).-The simultaneous reform of the offender.2. -Deterrence of other offenders3. -Society seeing that 'justice is done', which for most people would mean some sort of retribution (which would also aid deterrence). This emphatically does not, however, mean that in the eye-for-an-eye scenario retribution is the raison d'etre of justice, nor should it go so far as to remove the potential for individual reform and rehabilitation (no death penalty and no inflexible life prison sentences). It should always be equally and impartially applied (see below).Dealing with a couple of issues already raised:I agree with Rob on his last paragraph (I point this out just because it's refreshing to say that given our last debate). If a principle function of justice is to protect society then, unless you plan to permanently incapacitate (detain or execute) the offender you simply must attempt to reform them. That is not retribution in action, but it is justice, at least by my conception.I also agree that the pain caused to the victim(s) should not be a determinant of justice; on the contrary, I think that it is irrelevant. A man might murder a loner and nobody could care less, yet why, if all else (motive, method, mens rea etc) is equal why should he be punished less than a man who kills a jovial socialite? Justice, at least in the hands of the state, must be blind to the feelings of individuals, otherwise we have a system which is arbitrary, unpredictable and unfair and one where one life is valued more than others and one act more deserving of punishment than another (all else being equal, note) just because some people found it more upsetting.

  • >*utailitarian ends met by as liberal means as possible.

  • >Rob you say "the individual still holds responsibility, because they must be held to account". This is obviously flawed logic. You feel they must be taken into account and so suggest they hold responsibility. This is like saying I want to believe I will live forever, so there must be a God.My argument does include determinism/free will – however this is crucial, because if a person is not free (which they are not 🙂 they cannot be held accountable (but must still be punished to correct their behaviour).The justice system definatley should not be about relieving the pain of the victims (sorry Sean, I do love you) because they are going to want as much punishment as they can lay their bias hands on.

  • >Alex, I understand that therapy or medical treatment might help, but I fail to see how punishment is the most effective (if effective at all) method of dealing with unconscious actions.Further, if a person can't be held accountable then, legally, they can't be punished either. That's a pretty fundamental part of justice, that you can't be punished without commiting crime (which, if you are not accountable for your actions, you haven't). I probably agree with you more than first appears (i.e. that subconscious actions can be treated), but I don't think punishment is the right way, either legally or ethically.

  • >I agree with Ross's point (not sure if he said it first though?) that justice is for the society as a whole.A point I find rather interesting is one advocated by Emile Durkheim. He said that crime is a normal phenomenon i.e. that it's not possible for a society to exist without crime. In fact he said the punishment of a criminal serves to vindicate and reinforce the values of the community. He went further to say the existence of deviancy i.e. criminality, is necessary to further growth. After all Socrates was named a criminal by Athenian law. Yet it was his individualism that defined western social development, debatedly up and till today.What's my point? Concepts and notions of justice change. They change between countries and within them over time. Who knows conversations like this one may well help decide the consensus of the next 2000 years?I think the consensus view between us would be that justice is a balance between different goals, like reform, public contentment and feelings of safety, deterence of others, safety etc.Whether the victim's pain should or should not be irrelevant is as you know an issue that has recently been a big issue in my own life. On the one hand if justice is for the people then surely we should give weight to those things that affect people more? On the other hand how can we accurately weigh these differences? Will the greatest actors be able to persecute more than the worst actors? And indeed as Ross alludes to happiness is not the be all and end all in the world today. I would like to see a world that aimed above all to maximise positive emotions and minimize negative ones. But that isn't the case today, and so taking into account all the principles we believe in in western society, perhaps there should be no effect from the differing effects caused by different crimes? After all who can say what effect such things have on our emotional states. Perhaps as Ross says such things merely suggest that we value sociable people more than loners. As the matter is too close to heart for me I cannot yet make an unbiased decision but I think the arguments are fairly balanced.Robin, your answer strikes me as a fairly hypocritical one. You say I make assumptions such as the culprits being held to account (which I believed I was just taking from what you'd already said). Yet you go on to say people are not free. That is an opinion, and a highly disputable one. To me it is once again a matter of lexicon. You say people are not free, yet don't people make choices? Just because their choices are predictable does not mean the choice was not made. If I say to you you can take a million pounds with no catches, or you can refuse it, you will most likely take the money. If I knew enough about you to know the inner most workings of your mind I could potentially say this with 100% certainty. Yet you would still be 'free' to say no. This is why both the free will and determinism arguments are right. There is no need for one to be wrong.

  • >A point I find rather interesting is one advocated by Emile Durkheim. He said that crime is a normal phenomenon i.e. that it's not possible for a society to exist without crime. In fact he said the punishment of a criminal serves to vindicate and reinforce the values of the community. He went further to say the existence of deviancy i.e. criminality, is necessary to further growth. After all Socrates was named a criminal by Athenian law. Yet it was his individualism that defined western social development, debatedly up and till today.What's my point? Concepts and notions of justice change. They change between countries and within them over time.—That's a very interesting point that ties in with the anthropologist Mary Douglas' famous thesis in Purity and Danger that 'dirt is matter out of place' and that removing it is not so much a negative act as a positive one of reclaiming one's environment. By extension, by arranging and dealing with social 'dirt' (prostitutes, criminals of varying hues, religious dissenters and so on) societies can control (and have controlled) their macro environments redefine and return to their core values. Crime and perceptions of crime shift as societies' ideas of itself shift; crime is (and here I would agree with Durkheim) a murky mirror in which society likes to shape itself, an 'other' in much the same way as 'Here Be Monsters' marked next to anthropophagi on extra-European parts of medieval and early modern maps helped define European civilization in opposition to something altogether bestial. That links in with Said's Orientalism thesis as well, of course.I had never heard of Durkheim until now, but I wonder if Douglas informed him or he her; their theses seem mutually compatible.—Re: Scorates, that is almost the point JS Mill made in On Liberty in favour of free expression and conscience. If you kill (or gag) a Socrates (or a Christ, who he also mentioned in his wonderful prose) you kill or gag an idea, a contribution to 'truth' which Mill, in his ever mid-Victorian Whiggish way, was obsessed with. The result is stagnation and thus the freer the society the more intellectually and materially progressive it is.Mill, on justice as much as everything else, was a quintessential liberal.

  • >What's the name of Durkheim's work where he writes of these ideas?I'd like to read it.

  • >I'm honestly not sure which text it was in but I think it was "The Division of Labour in Society", 1893. I got it from a lecture on explaning crime by Darryl Davies. He's won an award for one of the best lecturers for 2009 and as such his lecture is on the podcast freely downloadable from Itunes called 'Big Ideas'. If you download it the lecture is from the 21st March 2009. But you might also find this interesting: http://science.jrank.org/pages/10922/Punishment-From-Justification-Explanation.htmlIt talks about the shift in philosophies about crime around the end of the nineteenth century.I'm surprised you haven't heard of Durkheim. You should definitely learn more about him. He was a truly great thinker. Mary Douglas was actually considered one of his followers. That's why they seem compatible.I absolutely agree with Mill on never holding up an idea. But how far did they take this freedom of expression? I never actually read his work directly, only cited pieces in other people's work. What was the purpose of the criminal justice system to him?

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