Cycles can be discerned in a person’s life; day and night, winter, spring, summer, autumn. There are also cycles to unravel in society. In 1922 Clara Wichmann was 36 years old and was mainly concerned with changing criminal law. She advocated not detaining people in prisons. One hundred years later, I’m 36 years old and I work for the movement RESCALED that works to replace small-scale detention centers with large prisons. There is exactly a century between us. But when I read her text, it doesn’t feel that way.

The realization that, on the basis of Clara Wichmann’s ideas, we have not succeeded in stopping the construction of large prisons in the hundred years between us, makes me humble. She laid an important criminological foundation with her ideas, both in an ideological sense and in a scientific sense. Yet a hundred years later we see the same patterns: of class society, of the rhetoric of retaliation, and of reducing crime to an act of the individual rather than the result of the organization of society. I therefore do not have the illusion that a radical change in our criminal justice system will take place soon. I do wish, as a society, to treat each other in a more civilized way. And that can be thought through in the legal system by thinking from a circular justice perspective.

Civilization Process

Circular justice is a plea for the moral development of society. The legal system should not be intended to establish an individual morality of guilt, but should be an in-between space that is primarily aimed at balancing and, where necessary, restoring the network of political, social and cultural relations through connecting past, present and the future.

Everyone agrees that a person exhibits morally culpable behavior to a greater or lesser extent. But what about acting in and from society? When do we speak of a more or less civilized society? An individual has the responsibility and obligation to justify his behavior. Shouldn’t that also apply to systems we’ve created together? There is too often a gap when it comes to taking responsibility when things go wrong. While the power of moral development lies precisely in the rejection of social habits that are harmful to fellow human beings.

This is how I remember a visit, long ago, to a former prison in Rome. In the Middle Ages, people were imprisoned in a dungeon in too small a space with too many people. The guide said that people had to sleep sitting down because otherwise they would drown in the low water in which they were forced to live. When we look back on this, we find it morally reprehensible. In two hundred years, the writer Arnon Grunberg wrote a few years ago in a footnote to the Volkskrant, we will find our criminal justice system barbaric.

The civilizing process is continuously going on in a business cycle. However, as far as I’m concerned, certain outdated systems, such as prison, may finally be gaining momentum for real change. Let’s take the next step and decide not to put people in large prisons anymore. Let’s recognize our social responsibility in the creation of crime. The result is that we no longer punish people, but that actions have consequences. Consequences for individuals as well as for us as a society. And yes, there may be differences in the way we express these consequences. The concept of circular justice offers plenty of scope for this.

By Veronique Aicha, March 18, 2022

Link naar Nederlandse versie

Circular justice

There is a well-known Dutch writer, Rutger Bregman, who has written a book entitled ‘Humankind’. With this book, the writer wants to sketch a new image of humanity, creating a new paradigm in which people are good.

‘Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau right? Is it true that man is good by nature, and that everything only went wrong with the emergence of civilization?’

His answer is yes, man is good by nature, so the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right when he wrote ‘Émile, ou De l’éducation’. In his book, Bregman gives dozens of examples in which individuals make the right decisions in difficult situations. In itself, this is a noble endeavor. With tear-jerking examples, he convinces the reader that in most cases humans are actually peaceful creatures.

Bregman is a child of our democratic society. He develops his theory on humankind based on classical-liberal thinking, individualism. Individualism has dominated our society for a long time and, logically, is based on the idea that an individual can fully develop in society and that every person is equal to each other. This is how the principle of equality arose in criminal law, the idea that our law should not be applied arbitrary and that it should treat every person as equal. The problem with that is that humans are not equal. We live in a deeply socially unequal society. Our criminal justice system was also born from this inequality. Is it surprising that our entire criminal justice system is largely made up of white professionals, judges, lawyers and people in prisons are predominantly from different cultural backgrounds? In prisons, individualism translates into all kinds of courses that focus on the dysfunctional individual. Someone is mentally ill, low literate has too little knowledge and capacities, etc. Help and support is quickly limited to ‘improving’, or ‘resocializing’ an individual. And rarely is a situation viewed holistically, or rarely do government agencies take responsibility for creating a “bad” situation that drove an individual to act. In the Netherlands, the government is the largest creditor of people in detention, this concerns health insurance, etc.

The ironic thing about Bregman’s ‘new’ view of mankind, that human beings are good, is that it is nothing new. It is a continuation of an old paradigm born out of religious morality, dichotomous thinking, namely that man is either good or bad. Strikingly, it is the Bible itself that implicitly argues against our modern criminal justice system. The prohibition on eating the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat an apple from this tree. I like to think because human beings are not supposed to judge about one another when it comes to what is good and what is evil. At the same time, this is precisely what our entire criminal justice system is designed for, condemning individuals to punishment. A crime is reduced to that one act of that one person. We only take the circumstances, the social network, or socio-economic situation into account as a backdrop when determining the person’s sentence. As if the circumstances are a still life in which that one person can be judged against a scale from good to evil. In this sense, justice is linear, a one-way route on a scale. The legal system should not be dealing with the individual morality, the individual’s ‘good or evil’, but should serve as an in-between space that balances the network of political, social, and cultural relations. Simply put, crime arises from the person AND the situation. Punishment is not central, but the consequences of the choices made by our legal system. Currently, we only look at one side of the story, nature. How about nurture? How does society deal with social issues and to what extent do we criminalize certain issues that could just as well be defined as a social problem that requires a social solution? To what extent can you hold the person responsible and to what extent has society been responsible for not solving structural social problems? This kind of reasoning might sound extreme to some people, but so was the idea that the Earth was round. It is time for us to take responsibility. If we want to reduce the widespread social inequality in society we will need a legal system that does no longer place the consequences of social inequality on the shoulders of individuals but addresses the inequality itself. Just as we can design our economy in a circular manner, we can also redesign our legal system towards circular justice. Circular justice can be defined as the process of exercising group autonomy with the aim of reaching social equity within society.  This cannot be done overnight, but step by step. However, that starts with daring to choose a different horizon, a new future when it comes to a fair legal system.

With the RESCALED movement, this new future is in sight. With the small-scale detention houses, we want to move beyond the paradigm of individualism, based on the old-fashioned ideas of philosophers like Rousseau. You cannot raise a person outside of society to become a perfect person and then expect it to be the same person upon re-entering society. Instead, in detention houses, we assume that people are defined by their immediate social structures, the people they associate with, and the socio-economic context in which they live. We all take responsibility for our neighbor, justice is circular.