I would give up... the term ‘criminal justice system’

Jordan Beaumont
Thursday, 10 April 2014

I would give up... using the the term ‘criminal justice system’ (CJS) as it is a not a just system and the use of the term ‘justice’ means we collude in the idea that it is. Instead we should use the term ‘criminal industrial complex’ as a more accurate representation of reality.

What is thought of as the ‘criminal justice system’ is an unjust system that produces and reinforces social injustices. Victims and society as a whole do not experience justice beyond outdated punitive notions while there is also no justice for the perpetrators who have often been victims themselves, are predominately drawn from the most vulnerable sections of society and sucked into a cycle of criminalisation.

So why then do we call it the criminal ‘justice’ system? The CJS promotes, reproduces and creates injustice, but the presence of the word ‘justice’ in CJS implies that it is in fact a source of justice. This clearly is at odds with the reality. In the same way others have called for us to not label  those found guilty of an offence as ‘offenders’, ‘ex-offenders’ or ‘criminals’, on the basis that this reinforces and supports a master status of their supposed inherent criminality, we should not continue to refer to the criminal ‘justice’ system. Our continuing use of the word ‘justice’ means that we are colluding in the idea that the CJS really does dispense justice.

Continuing to call it a criminal ‘justice’ system also has a negative effect on those who advocate a move towards a social justice system. There cannot be an argument that a social justice system is a just system when a CJS is not a just system, as the mere presence of the word and our continuing use of it implies that both are a form of or a route to justice. The position to argue for a social justice system is weakened so long as we continue to collude in the idea that the current criminal system in the UK is a justice system.

So what term might better fit the bill?

The ‘prison industrial complex’ is a term used to describe the situation in the United States, where a collection of organisations and institutions benefit from and structurally reinforce the prison estate. I would argue that in the UK we have a ‘criminal industrial complex’, with a media that ideologically reinforces and promotes criminalising interventions, private companies that are increasingly involved along the lines of the American system and third party organisations that are also being drawn in.

We now have a dense network of institutions that benefit and structurally reinforce criminalisation as whole, which means that the ‘criminal industrial complex’ risks becoming our only way to deal with societal issues and harm.