Criminal justice and social exclusion: A place for social justice?

Criminal justice and social exclusion: A place for social justice?

In the Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett make a persuasive argument that national crime rates strongly correlate to levels of social inequality. Criminologists, furthermore, have observed that certain types of crime, acquisitive crimes in particular, are concentrated among socially marginalised and excluded groups.

Tackling the link between social exclusion and involvement in crime is not straightforward when we consider that social disadvantage has been deeply embedded within the structures and institutions of British society for many decades. This entrenchment is arguably worsened by the institutions of the criminal justice system and policies that glorify individual responsibility while at the same time downplaying or silencing collective and social responsibilities. Part of the problem can be traced to our narrow conception of justice and the unintended consequences of the type of justice we are delivering. The solution I want to propose is that the exercise of criminal justice should be widened to include a consideration of social justice.

The links between social exclusion and crime have been well-recognised but how might the day-to-day workings of the institutions of the criminal justice system contribute to this link? I am not suggesting that the criminal justice system reproduces this link intentionally. Part of the problem, it can be suggested, is related to the narrow conception of justice that underpins the decisions and actions of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice in this respect, directs the disciplinary apparatus of the state towards correcting the individual rather than recognising the structural influences on individual behaviour. In practice, the search for justice inevitably becomes entangled with punishment, retribution or questions regarding the types of punishment that can most successfully and efficiently deliver justice for society. The exercise of punishment aims to deter crime generally, rehabilitate offenders and discourage them from committing crimes in the future. Importantly, in the last few decades the pursuit of criminal justice has increasingly become fixated on prison as the method of punishment best suited to achieve these aims.

The number of men and women sent to prison has almost doubled in the last two decades with Government figures for September 2019 reporting 82,384 prisoners in England and Wales, compared to 44,975 in 1989. Furthermore, since 2010 the growth in the prison population in England has surpassed the increase in the general population by 10%. Paradoxically, actual crime rates had been falling long before the prison came to hold this privileged positon in the exercise of juridical power. Nevertheless, this move towards incarceration has unsurprisingly silenced, on the one hand, the link between social exclusion and crime and on the other, the collective responsibilities necessary to reduce the social causes of some crimes.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness acknowledged that 15% of newly sentenced prisoners reported being homeless before entering prison and a third of rough sleepers in London had served time in prison. Such living conditions can have serious implications for there is convincing evidence that those who were homeless prior to their imprisonment are more likely to be reconvicted upon release compared with those that report living in other types of accommodation. In essence, those caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system are more likely to come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Arguably, the continued use of an underfunded and overpopulated prison system risks producing hostile and criminogenic environments that will inevitably impact upon communities in the form of more crime, victimisation and human misery. The prison disturbances, rising levels of violence against prison staff and prisoner on prisoner violence is recent evidence of this type of environment.

Where do we go from here? We can never imprison our way to a safer and more equal society. A solution to this problem, I would argue, can be found in the concept of social justice. Criminal justice is limited in its valorisation of individual choice and responsibility and neglect of collective responsibilities. In contrast, social justice promotes fair and just relations between the individual and society. It supports an imagination of the individual as always embedded and affected by the social environment. This understanding of justice as a collective or social good draws attention to the economic and social inequalities of those that find themselves caught within the revolving door of the criminal justice system. It moves beyond the idea that individuals alone have the capacity and responsibility to become more socially included and recognises that with the fair and equal distribution of opportunities and access to a wider range of resources, such as appropriate housing upon release from prison, desistance from crime is an achievable reality. From this perspective, rehabilitation of an individual offender should always carefully consider the bigger picture as well as its influence on the individual.

Practically, the inclusion of social justice into the criminal justice system might involve increasing the use of community alternatives to imprisonment and strengthening the position of social policy in efforts to reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders. Either way, there is much value in understanding the criminal justice system as an important mechanism for achieving social justice and something that we can all benefit from.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Dr Ian Walmsley. Ian is Senior Lecture in Criminology at the University of the West of England and a former member of DHI staff.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

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