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Fall 2004 Edition
JOHN   HOWARD   SOCIETY   OF   ALBERTA

The Reporter

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Community Issues in Criminal Justice

“Convenience and justice are often not on speaking terms”.
                          Lord Atkin


What is Justice?

It is not uncommon for a victim or victims of a crime to angrily proclaim, after the accused is given a sentence much less severe than they wanted and expected, "There is simply no justice!" (See: Gordon Kent. "Crime victims see no justice." Edmonton Journal, May 30, 2004).

What does justice mean to someone who is directly affected by a criminal act? Do crime victims dissatisfied with a sentence usually want a more severe form of punishment? Is long term incarceration the most severe punishment that can be administered in a civilized, democratic society? Are victims expecting some form of restitution? Do victims claim there is no justice because of the belief that "their case" was treated differently than the norm? What does the term "justice" mean to victims of crime, their families, witnesses, and the general public? This is the topic we want to explore in this newsletter.

Justice Defined

What, really, is justice for lawmakers, academics and those engaged in jurisprudence – the judges, prosecutors, and barristers? So much has been written about justice since Biblical times that no brief answer to this question is possible. On the other hand, there are identifiable terms and themes in the literature on justice that offer some insight into this subject.

Justice can be more easily understood if its historical development is viewed from three perspectives: as a universal abstract idea somewhat independent of man, as a temporal human and social ideal, and as a blend of the two aforementioned perspectives. For example, the roots of the phrase "All men are equal as far as the natural law is concerned" can be found in ancient philosophy as well as having modern legal and social application (Burton; Wright).

A brief survey of law dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference texts provides a number of important principles, concepts, and terms that characterize justice in the early 21st century:

  • The principle that "the like be treated alike" has been described in a number of ways:
    • The perpetual disposition to render every man his due (Black; English)
    • To render each one his rights (Burton)
    • The virtue that results in each person receiving their due (Curzon)
    • Equity and justice are substantially equivalent and synonymous terms (Black)
    • "Just and equitable" are general terms and, according to a Nova Scotia court ruling, should not be reduced "to the sum of particular instances" (Gardner)
    • A sense of righteousness (Forkosch)
  • The principle that justice is primarily determined by the law:
    • Justice according to, or conforming with, the law (Black)
    • According to a New Brunswick court ruling "just" means "conforming to or consonant with what is legal" (Gardner)
  • Various terms are used to convey the concept of justice: equitableness, equity, fair-mindedness, fair play, freedom from bias, impartiality, objectivity, probity, reparation, retribution, right, righteousness (Burton)
  • Retributive justice is a particular approach that has gained substantial popularity. It links morality with wrongdoing and justice. Offenders, its proponents argue, ought to be punished law in proportion to their guilt and the extent of their victim’s injuries (Curzon). The application of retributive justice is evident in the concept of "just desserts." The principle underlining just desserts is that punishment for a crime should be directly related to the seriousness of the crime" (Davis, 143).
  • Another application is the development of the "justice model" (Davis, 144; Williams). Critics of the U.S. correctional system in the 1970s argued programs emphasizing rehabilitation within prisons had little positive effect on inmates. This was called the "nothing works" movement. Greater emphasis should be placed on "fairness." This can be best achieved by abolishing the use of indeterminate sentences and limiting judicial discretion in order to make sentences uniform for certain categories of crime.