Friday, January 23, 2009

Criminal Justice

I once came across Jeffrey Reiman’s idea that a justice system itself is criminal if it is unjust. Therefore, a justice system that is criminal is no more morally superior than the criminal it seeks to supposedly control.

As I thought about it, I realised he actually has a great point. What makes a justice system ultimately just? This can be a tricky issue. After all, criminals are known to use force against the will of others, but the police and a justice system is also known to use force against the will of others (alleged criminals). So if both those who defend the law and break the law are prone to using violence, what makes one any better than the other?

Reiman argues that ultimately, a justice system is just because it applies force or violence justly. But that begs the question, what is just? The distinction, he argues, is that a justice system is morally superior and just only when it applies the rule of law (and force) equally against all who violate the rules of society. In other words, you could say that justice should be blind – that is, it should not discriminate against one segment of society and favour another. The authority to use force is only moral, just and legitimate when it does not prejudice some and curry favour for others. Otherwise, that use of force simply becomes raw, brute violence – no different than a common criminal’s use of violence against others for certain self-serving interests. So for example, if police force is used against the poor to protect the interest of the powerful, this is not a just use of force. It is not blind – and therefore, morally no better than the criminal who uses violence against some for the interest of another (oneself). In fact, both forms of use of violence in this case amount to being criminal.

Hmmm…. So this got me thinking about the situation with all this police brutality we repeatedly read about in the news. Isn’t it curious – just a tad bit – that over the past few years, so many individuals have reportedly died while in police custody? And those who happen to end up losing their lives also invariably happen to belong to a particular social class. Oh, I’m quite certain you can figure out that they are not the criminals who commit corporate fraud or embezzle huge amounts from the government or their company. It is not those who may have misused public funds or siphoned off millions from the rakyat through devious schemes and scams. No, these alleged criminals are not the ones who seem to end up dead – assuming they are even pursued and interrogated by the police!

Certain kind of alleged criminals are more prone to ending up at the balai polis – so we have a built in bias. Following Reiman’s line of reasoning above, when force is then largely and disproportionately reserved for those who are the allegedly “common criminals” rather than the wealthy criminals, the justice system legitimacy itself becomes questionable, if not fundamentally compromised.

So when you look at the roster of those who have been dying in the hands of the police in recent years alone, a very discernible pattern emerges. Not only are those ending up dead typically the alleged “petty criminals,” it is also arguable that we’re seeing a pattern where these deaths have a particular… let’s just call it a particular “racial distribution” that speaks volumes about the disproportionate use of force/violence by the police.

If one thoughtfully weighs Reiman’s argument above, there is no escaping the reality that our so-called justice system itself is unjust – and is therefore guilty of being criminal.

G. Krishnan