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Just What is Justice?

An Essay By Trevor Stone

March 1997, Junior Year, New Vista High School

When a person commits a crime, many people call for him to be "brought to justice." But what does this mean? To many people, it means punishment. For instance, if a person commits murder, some would say she should be brought to justice by having to serve a long prison sentence or even face the death penalty. Others might say that it would be just if she wasn't punished very hard because she did a good deed by killing someone who was a terrible person.

Probably the best definition of justice is "fair treatment of people." It is primarily used in law, but it can also be applied to situations such as in the workplace or in a school. True justice means that everyone is treated fairly under the law. But what is fair? Fair is treating people without bias to non-related factors such as skin color, age, gender, sexual preference, or other factors that (usually) don't make a difference.

Justice manifests itself through the channels that society set up. Setting these channels up involves laws that are set down by the founders and later rulers of the society. In theory, this is done by a person or group of people selected by the community and with input from the community regarding what issues are important. In practice, though, laws are often created by rulers without the input of the people or without certain situations in mind. This is when the principles of justice and fairness come in.

The best way to practice fairness and justice that has been found so far is the court system. When a crime has been allegedly committed under the law, the perpetrator is allowed a trial by jury. The jury is constructed of people from the community who have no interest or previous disposition in the case. Thus, the jury is theoretically fair. The defendant and her accuser both present their reasons for why a certain verdict should be given. It is not only the job of the jury to discern what events took place and whether they are illegal, but also whether the law is justly applied to the current case. In theory, the jury (given true evidence) will decide what is best for the community in the particular case.

In practice, however, the court system is often corrupt. The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a good example. There is pretty clear evidence that he was convicted and sentenced in part because of the color of his skin. This is obviously not fair or just because the people who are supposed to be assuring justice are not acting in a fair manner. Another example was when the policemen who beat Rodney King were found not guilty of assault by an all white male jury.

What should be done so that justice may be served when the people supposed to be serving justice don't do their job? People aren't practicing justice if they "take justice into their own hands" by deciding a punishment for the police officers (such as lynching them). The people acting on their own idea of justice, call them the mob, already have an idea as to what happened and are thus biased. They may not know all of what happened or what laws pertain to the case. Further, if the mob is allowed to act out its own version of justice, there is nothing to stop a certain mob from wiping out a whole group of people for a trifle.

In order for the common people to assure that justice is done, they must take action with the makers of the law, not with those judged by the law. If a law is unjust, the only way it will be changed is if people inform their government representatives, who owe their positions to the people, that the law is unjust and they want it changed. This may not be easy, especially considering the way the government now works. It is possible, though, as Martin Luthur King Jr. and other civil rights advocates showed. King himself said in his "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" that, "We have a duty to obey just laws and a duty to disobey unjust laws." This is a way of informing the politicians and citizens that a law is unjust and that the government is unwilling to change it.

Sometimes, though, the laws are just, but are practiced unjustly. In this case, the legal system must have someone to answer to. In order to keep a society from becoming a caste system of power and dominance, the people must be able to complain about the acts of the system. Without this built in system to keep people in check, the society can easily end up with a few people in power who have taken the rights that were given up by the people but who don't return the justice and protection that the people traded their rights for.

Justice is the most important part of a system of government. It is what keeps the rights of the people from being ignored by people in power with motives. It can assure that people's trivial belongings are not stolen, it can assure that people can live freely, or it can assure universal human rights. It can also be used as a pretense when those in power ignore any of these rights.

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