Criminology prof discusses importance of fairness, societal inclusivity in discourse on crime

Penal policy has been a staple of political discourse for years, with little change in its execution. A recent study by Carolyn Côté-Lussier, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s department of criminology and Jason T. Carmichael, a professor in the department of sociology at McGill University hopes to introduce new talking points.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychology Public Policy and Law, suggests that the best tool for advocating criminal justice reform is by placing emphasis on the one thing the justice system is known to fight for: fairness.

The study concluded that the best way to move forward in criminal justice reform is an appeal to fairness, labelling it a universal human concern.

Côté-Lussier expressed concerns about the current criminal justice system that many Canadians are sympathetic towards. She believes that although “the crime rate has been dropping pretty consistently, the incarceration rate hasn’t,” and this is problematic for a number of reasons. For instance, it’s unfair to prisoners, as many people who are currently in prison are placed there while awaiting their trial and even more are in jail for meager “probation violations.”

“This excess is unfair to Canadians as the criminal justice system is very costly,” she explained. However her research may offer insights to remedy this issue.

Per Côté-Lussier, our ability to track fairness appears early in childhood, and there is neurological evidence which suggests that this ability is “hardwired” into the brain.

This proclivity to notice inequalities is one that can be used to advocate for less punitive penal policy. A public discussion regarding long sentences for minor crimes or wrongful convictions, (in other words, on the unfairness of penal policy) might reduce calls for a “tough” criminal justice system. Then, as the antiquated calls for harsh penal policy are slowly chipped away, a more effective and less costly system can take its place.

Côté-Lussier concedes that this is not a perfect solution. According to the study, Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) is the ideology most linked with calls for punitiveness, and “if you compare RWA and concerns about fairness, RWA wins hands down.”

This means that, though fairness is a universal concern, it can be overshadowed by a much stronger proclivity towards authoritarianism The other ideology discussed in the study is Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). People who score high in SDO “tend to score lower on empathy, and that has implications for fairness,” Côté-Lussier said.

This poses an unfortunate paradox, as people who score higher on both of the ideological continuums are more likely to support harsh penal policy and are simultaneously less likely to be persuaded by appeals to fairness.

As a result of this, and of evidence pointing to the inefficiency of harsh penal policy, Côté-Lussier suggests that perhaps a degree of insularity for the criminal justice system from public opinion might be a good thing, and laments that the government shouldn’t dedicate too many resources “into policies that we know are counterproductive.”

Ideally, she stresses the importance of a holistic approach to criminal justice, and maintains that factoring in societal inclusivity and economic equality are the ideal way to reduce crime.