A pacifist view of criminal justice

The only justification for any use of force is as a last resort to avert an imminent threat. The force must be minimal: it cannot be minimal in a situation of war, so war is never justified.

All responses to crime after that immediate threat should either be for the good of the offender, or to prevent the offender from profiting from their crime. Crime dislocates relationships within society, so the purpose of the response should be to restore those relationships. Rehabilitation is the only justification for punishment. Deterrence, using the offender to deter others, makes the offender a means to an end, and a human being should not be used as a means to an end. Retribution, fitting punishment to offence, is not possible; apples are not oranges.

Offenders are often victims. Where people do not feel they have a stake in society, they should be helped to feel that, for Every [one] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. We should take care of victims. I remember a man whose sentences only extended to community service and fines resenting that someone who had been imprisoned got a Community Care Grant on release; so this means noticing victims who have not committed crime. We need to bind society more closely together.

It is right to prevent people from harming themselves. Self harm is a sign of mental illness. If assisted dying is permitted, it should be clear that the person dying themself benefits, by alleviation of suffering. Self-harming activity, such as drug use, should be treated as a health and social care issue, not by criminal law. Criminal activity to get money for drugs should be treated by drug rehabilitation where possible.

Mental health problems of offenders should be properly treated. No-one should be left behind. I heard at the weekend of Glebe House, a Quaker initiative to work with juvenile sex offenders with particular mental health problems and disturbed backgrounds. It was found that none of a group studied by researchers was in denial about their own previous sexually harmful behaviour, after completing treatment there. Surely it is worth this work, to avoid the suffering and waste of life of re-offending.

Restorative justice, repairing relationships and damage, should be the purpose of criminal justice.

Here I wonder, about building the potential offender’s empathy with victims, and improving impulse control and appreciation of consequences. This post is not a system of justice, for much of the work to learn how offending might be reduced has not been done. However re-offending rates show the current system is not working. I have seen men whose spirit has been broken by prison: the waste and cruelty sickens me.

Hammershoi, interior of courtyard

10 thoughts on “A pacifist view of criminal justice

  1. We are experimenting with restorative justice through the court system here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It seems to be very effective within the Maori community, but is gaining acceptance, albeit slowly in the wider community. It’s a trend I would like to see accelerated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is slow because everyone’s experience is of punishment for crime, and because authoritarians will have great difficulty believing it can work. The research justification is increasing, though creating proper control groups is problematic.


      • Back in the 1980s we had a royal commission investigating crime and rehabilitation. The report by Justice Roper recognised that it’s not rehabilitation that most offenders need. What they actually need is habilitation – they have never learnt how to participate in society in the first place. The proposal was to replace prisons where appropriate with habilitation centres.

        Unfortunately, at the time both politicians and public were more interested in crime and punishment. It’s time the Roper Report was dusted off and re-examined.

        Liked by 1 person

    • In Northern Quebec, among the Inuit (Eskimo) communities, there is a strong pressure towards traditional restorative justice. But it also means that sex-assaulted women meet their offenders every day…


      • Interesting. What is the outcome of those restorative justice procedures, in cases of sexual assault?

        Added: I can’t begin to address this. I did a bit of googling, and found this paper from 1995 about sentencing circles from a feminist lawyer, which led me to Pauktuutit. There I read of forced attendance at residential schools and the creation of settlements. I hope restorative justice has more hope in the UK.


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