18 February, 2010

The meaning of "justice"

I was listening to NPR this morning and heard this:

China's centuries of legal traditions emphasized that justice was about the end result — that is, nabbing the bad guys, and not about due process.
The construction of the sentence startled me: did the reporter really mean to imply that justice is "about due process"?

Whether justice is about "nabbing the bad guys" is arguable. I don't care for that definition myself; I would hazard that justice is about maintaining right order in relationships, and restoring it when violated. Neverthemore, given a choice between two societies:
  • one where there is no due process, but an infallible criminal justice system always nabs the bad guys and puts them in jail;
  • one where every criminal investigation and court proceeding follows due process, but the bad guys are never nabbed;
I don't believe there's a person alive who would turn down the first in favor of the second: despite elevating due process to the highest consideration, it smacks of injustice.

Of course, no infallible criminal justice system exists. Because of this, we generally believe that due process is necessary for several reasons, and are even willing to allow a bad guy to go free when due process is violated, because the net benefit to the innocent from due process far outweighs the occasional freed criminal. But many people disagree with this view even in the States—I have known people who would rather keep a prisoner in jail than admit DNA evidence that would exonerate him, simply because the suspect supposedly received due process at every stage of his trial—and I suspect that the reporter is trying to say that in China the general legal view is that due process is more a hindrance to justice than a help. Hence the next sentence:
The logic went that if a person was arrested, it must be because he did something wrong in the first place.
I've known a few people who explicitly espoused that point of view, and I've never been to China.

But if "justice" really is about "due process", full stop, then God help us all.

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