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What Is Justice?

Courtesy of Craig Moe (flickr CC0)

What is justice? That is the question being contemplated here in this article. It has multiple definitions and interpretations that serve many goals. Some definitions are violent. Other definitions are much more focused on trying to rehabilitate people and create more functional members of society.

Whatever the goal is for a better society, there is an interpretation that can fit. However, two forms seem to stand out when people have conversations about it. Those two are punitive justice and restorative justice.

Punitive Justice

Punitive justice is a system that seeks to punish those who have committed a crime. The act that constitutes a crime, the impact other issues have in making what is known as a criminal, and many other things are sometimes irrelevant in these systems. Specifically, this system seeks to punish, and or take away from the criminal based on what they did. A lot of times this type of system becomes corrupted.

An example of this type of system becoming corrupt is the American system. From this system, another system of oppression was built. The prison industrial complex was built from and around the corruption of the American legal system. People of color, specifically Black people were put in prisons for long periods for relatively small crimes.

Profit From Punishment

This is one of the greatest examples of a country’s understanding of justice creating an unjust world. If justice is supposed to be about creating a better world, a world of freedom, then the American justice system does not fit this definition of justice. It takes the freedoms of Black and brown lives and sends them to prison for minor crimes that wouldn’t be considered crimes later down the line.

Punitive justice systems can be made into profit-making machines by profiting from how many people get sent to jail, how long they stay there, and manipulating the conditions in which a specific person gets sent. Furthermore, punitive justice relies on a nation’s opinion on punishment to survive.

Punishing The Guilty

For example, if a nation had all types of media that purposefully pushed the message that punishment is justice then a nation’s people would be much more willing to accept a punitive justice system. If justice is about punishing the guilty then a punitive justice system is one of the very few systems that can fit that definition.

Courtesy of Geoff Livingston (Flickr CC0)

However, one may end up with a society that punishes people that are struggling to make ends meet. On the micro level, punitive justice systems offer no real path forward for prisoners. Other than simply waiting for the release date, there isn’t much for prisoners to do in purely punitive justice systems. On a macro scale, the punitive system doesn’t do much to create a better society.

They take away people’s lives and provide no real consolation for people’s families or the world at large. A criminal was punished, that is all. Communities of people may be forever scarred and may have no real path forward. The only thing that purely punitive justice systems can provide is punishment.

Restorative Justice

A restorative justice system is not about punishment at all. A restorative justice system on a micro level seeks to repair the community and the people that were harmed. Restorative systems want essentially “restore” what was lost during and after that crime.

Sometimes, this is an apology to a business owner for stealing, either times its decades of community service. Ultimately, restorative justice systems are about helping not hurting. Helping those who have been wronged, helping those who went down the wrong path, and helping society regain a member of it.

Restorative systems aren’t invincible from corruption either. While punitive systems are extremely and quite easily corruptible, restorative justice systems have less blatant ways to profit and take power. Restorative justice isn’t about keeping people in prison for extremely long times for selling an ounce of weed. However one could exploit the need for certain materials or the need for therapists and things like that. There are ways to corrupt that system, it just isn’t as easy when compared to a punitive justice system.

A restorative system on a micro-scale is a lot different from a punitive system on a macro scale. If justice is about actively trying to create a safer, more equitable society, then a restorative model is one of the very few that can do that. Restorative justice on a macro level looks like prevention.

Restorative Justice on a macro scale

What is meant by this is that crime is prevented by putting resources into mediating the things that create crime. For example, since there is a high correlation between poverty and crime then a restorative justice model would try to reduce poverty. Less poverty equals less crime, which equals fewer criminals, which in turn equals a better society.

Restorative justice on a macro level would seek to mediate all of the determining factors and high correlations with a crime. Things like mental health, poverty, and over-policing would be reduced by a macro-level restorative justice campaign. This would in theory create a better world, not just for the communities harmed, but for society as a whole.

Courtesy of Nicole ( Flickr CC0)

Moreover, many countries have a mix of the two. For example, America is mainly a punitive justice system. However, it has sprinkles of restorative justice in there as well. Some prisons in America have therapists where people can try to learn from their mistakes. For some crimes, community service is another option instead of going to jail. Yet, America still has the death penalty, its history of mass incarceration, and racialized prison sentences.

Justice Shouldn’t Be Complicated

Finally, there is the eternal question that still hasn’t been answered. What is justice? It has multiple definitions and therefore has multiple meanings. If it is pain and punishment then the punitive system is the only option to see justice in this world. If it is restoration and healing, then the restorative path is the only path a nation can take to justice.

This topic is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. There doesn’t have to be a prison industrial complex. Mass incarceration of people of color, particularly Black people don’t have to be a thing. Justice doesn’t have to tear through communities. It can heal and help. America could use its vast (stolen) resources to prevent crime by mediating poverty. The Black community could live in a world without fear of the prison industrial complex. All it takes is the people of this nation to decide to do something about it. A sustained long-term effort in the fight to heal the communities of the world.

Written by Kenneth Mazerat


OkJusticeReform: How Poverty Drives Violent Crime by  Michael Olson

TheNigeriaLawyer: A Simple Guide To Understanding Restorative Justice by Unini Chioma

Britannica: retributive justice by Jon’a F. Meyer

PrisonPolicy: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 by  Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Craig Moe’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

First Inset Image Courtesy of Geoff Livingston Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Second Inset Image Courtesy of  Nicole’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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