Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Punishment (Page 1 of 2)

A Criminal Law for Semi-Citizens

In this post, Cristián Irarrázaval Zaldívar and Ivó Coca-Vila discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how to legitimate punishment in the context of varying forms of citizenship.


Ask yourself why an English court can legitimately punish an Indonesian who committed an offence in Japan but now lives in the UK, or a Spanish judge can punish a young Senegalese criminal offender who, after months crossing through Africa, enters Spain illegally and subsists in absolute hardship hidden from state authorities. Probably your answer would be something along the lines that punishment is necessary to prevent harm. Indeed, that is how most criminal law scholars respond. However, among contemporary authors, it is increasingly common to assert that the criminal law of a given state should be applicable only to those who, at the time of the commission of the offence, had some kind of political bond with it, namely, to those who belonged to the polity as “citizens”. In our recent article, we explain why the advantages of this approach outweigh the downsides, at least as long as we take seriously the fact that citizenship is not all-or-nothing, but comes in degrees.

The “citizen criminal law” dilemma

The major strength of this “citizen criminal law” approach is that it rightly places the individual who must endure punishment at the centre of the discussion about its legitimacy. “If you are going to send me to prison, explain to me why I have to bear your punishment!” This not only seems to be the correct starting point for any attempt at theoretical justification, but also provides a limiting force to the scope of the criminal law that is lacking in those theories that justify punishment mainly on the rationale of prevention. When it comes to prevention, punishment is never harsh enough! Thus, citizen criminal law highlights the huge problems of legitimacy when punishing people living in social exclusion, foreigners who commit crimes against nationals abroad, minors who are not allowed to vote, or disenfranchised criminal offenders.

However, the idea of a citizen criminal law comes up against a difficult problem to solve. Advocates of this conception usually operate with a binary understanding of citizenship, which apparently allows a clear line to be drawn between full citizens (who can be punished legitimately) and outsiders (against whom the state could not impose a punishment, at most perhaps a coercive preventive measure). The problem with this is that binary classification between insiders and outsiders is implausible. If citizenship as a right-based status is composed of multiple elements (i.e., different types of rights, including civil, political, social, and nationality rights) that a state guarantees to an individual, then most persons in contemporary societies will be neither full insiders, nor complete outsiders, but rather semi-citizens. By semi-citizen we mean someone who enjoys some – but not all – of the rights associated with citizenship. This term obviously applies in the absence of legal citizenship status, as in the case of the permanent resident or the unauthorized immigrant. Yet it also refers to someone whose legal status does not translate into the effective guarantee of important rights (think of the case of a Brazilian national living in a dangerous favela).

Therefore, the binary understanding of citizenship confronts the proponents of citizen criminal law with a dilemma. They can resort to a strict notion of citizenship and accept that a large number of semi-citizens who commit crimes cannot be punished, meaning that a significant proportion of what we understand as criminal law would be illegitimate. Or, more commonly, they can undertake ad hoc adaptations of the notion of citizenship that lead to more acceptable consequences, in that they treat different types of semi-citizens (including unauthorized immigrants or the socially marginalized) as if they were full citizens. Thus, for example, some authors who identify citizenship with the right to vote end up also accepting the legitimacy of punishment with respect to those who cannot vote by affirming that they at least have the right to express themselves politically. But, by reducing the standard of citizenship in this way, the advantages promised by the citizen criminal law vanish, because citizenship status is not truly taken into account when punishing.

Our proposal: proportionality between punishment and the bond of citizenship

In a recent co-authored article, we argue that there is a path to overcome this dilemma. The binary approach to citizenship is unfitting. In fact, the political link between a community and a person is scalar, meaning that there is a continuum of possible political relationships with varying intensities. For the sake of our proposal, as reference points at the extremes of this spectrum, we outline the ideal types of “full-citizen” (strong rights in all elements, i.e. civil, social, etc…) and “minimal semi-citizen” (those who at least enjoy very weak rights of some kind in a community). Now, if we take seriously the idea that the foundation of punishment lies primarily in the political bond between the punishing polity and the punished, then the strength of this bond (necessarily gradient) must be considered in the severity of the punishment. In other words: fewer (lower quality) rights guaranteed = weaker citizenship bond = less punishment when all other relevant variables (e.g., culpability or harm) are held equal. Thus, the full citizen and the minimal semi-citizen should be punished differently for the same offence.

This approach has two important virtues in comparison with the proposals of citizen criminal law referred to above. Firstly, our approach leads to a fairer and more individualised punishment of crimes committed by semi-citizens, insofar as it enables the infliction of a punishment that fits the (semi-)citizenship status, making it possible to distinguish between markedly different statuses, such as national and tourist. Secondly, by legitimising the imposition of punishment against individuals who lack the idealised status of full-citizens, we adopt a variant of citizen criminal law that suits the real world, where semi-citizens are the rule. In short, the semi-citizen criminal law approach can legitimate punishment on those only partially part of the state while circumscribing the severity of the punishment to the degree of their citizenship status.

Is the criminal law the best tool to fight discrimination and hate-based violence?

In the past few months, a central topic of discussion in Italian public debate has been the Ddl Zan, a proposed bill to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The bill does not create any new crimes but extends to these categories existing criminal legislation that currently covers discrimination and violence on the grounds of racial, ethnic and religious reasons as well as incitement to commit such acts. Such acts of discrimination and violence and their incitement can either be punished with a fine or a prison sentence to up to 4 years or, in case these actions already constitute a more serious crime, the penalty can be increased to up to double. The Ddl Zan also includes measures to support victims as well as broader initiatives to fight discrimination and inequalities, including the creation of a National Day against homophobia. Unsurprisingly, the bill has been the object of a heated debate. The LGBTQ+ movement and the majority of the feminist movement as well as other progressive forces are fighting for its approval, while conservatives argue that the bill endangers freedom of speech and imposes a supposedly divisive worldview. Setting this aside, I want to address another issue in connection to this bill, namely that of whether the criminal law should be regarded as the right instrument to fight discrimination and this kind of violence.

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Introducing Political Philosophy with Public Policy

What is a good way to learn about political philosophy? Plausibly there is a variety of reasonable answers to this question, depending on what and why one wants to know about the subject, and it is some testament to this that there are excellent introductions that focus on the issues, concepts, and key thinkers in the field.

In our recent book – Introducing Political Philosophy: A Policy-Driven Approach – Will Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and I offer an approach that focuses on introducing the subject through the lens of public policy.

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How should we think about the Irrevocability of Capital Punishment and Euthanasia?

In this post, Saranga Sudarshan discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the issue of irrevocability in arguing about capital punishment and euthanasia.


Working out our moral and political views on things is a messy business. Sometimes, when we think our arguments for why certain things are right or wrong, just or unjust are really persuasive we find they have no effect on others. Other times we realise that these arguments lead to moral and political judgements that make us question whether they were good arguments to begin with. Although it is often uncomfortable, when we live in a shared social world and we exert our authority to make coercive laws to govern ourselves and others it is helpful to take a step back and think about how some of our arguments work at their core. This sort of reflection is precisely what I do in a recently published article in relation to a particular argument against Capital Punishment.

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Resistance against climate injustice beyond civil disobedience?

Last year Nikolas Mattheis argued on this blog that climate school strikes are acts of civil disobedience (rather than truancy), that pupils are entitled to this form of protest and that they should not be punished. I agree. Acts of civil disobedience by Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände and similar movements cause substantial public dispute. However, a more radical and troubling question emerge from recent writings in political philosophy: Given the great injustice involved in climate change, are uncivil acts of resistance morally justified? In the following I will argue that most of them are not.

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Should We Punish Non-Citizens?

In this post, Bill Wringe discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on difficulties justifying punishing non-citizens.


Philosophers spend a surprising amount of time thinking about punishment: about what counts as punishment, about what people should and should not be punished for, and about whether and why people should be punished at all. When they do so, they tend to make a lot of assumptions about the kinds of cases of punishment they are interested in: for example, that when the state punishes someone, it is typically because they have been convicted of a genuine crime at the end of a fair trial. One assumption that often gets made in these discussions is that the person being punished is a citizen of the state that is punishing them. But it’s important to realize that states often punish individuals who are not citizens. As I argue in a recent article, this matters, because some of the ways in which we might try to justify punishing citizens don’t seem to make very much sense when we apply them to non-citizens.

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From the Vault: Journal of Applied Philosophy

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the launch of our collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

In 2019-20, Justice Everywhere began a collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The journal is a unique forum that publishes philosophical analysis of problems of practical concern, and several of its authors post accessible summaries of their work on Justice Everywhere. These posts draw on diverse theoretical viewpoints and bring them to bear on a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from the environment and immigration to economics, parenting, and punishment.

For a full list of these posts, visit the journal’s author page. For a flavour of the range, you might read:

Stay tuned for even more from this collaboration in our 2020-21 season!

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

Unlocking care in prisons

In this post, Helen Brown Coverdale discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on care in prisons.


Lawyers, criminologists and campaign groups increasingly call out the injustices of prison conditions. They are right to do so – we cannot and should not ignore brutalisation permitted and perpetrated by the state. But there’s more to prison life than violence. Although it may surprise you, care is present in prisons. In my article ‘Caring and the Prison in Philosophy, Policy and Practice: Under Lock and Key’, I argue that the ethics of care can enhance how we think about punishment. Care ethics can recognise and value caring in prisons, recognise and condemn both violence and inadequate caring, and help us improve criminal punishment by its own lights.

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Should We Shame Those Who Ignore Social Distancing Guidelines?

In this post, Paul Billingham and Tom Parr apply some of their recent thinking on the morality of public shaming to the case of social distancing guidelines.

Social norms can change astonishingly quickly. Within a matter of days, and in response to the ongoing pandemic, we’ve witnessed the emergence of strong social norms against going out for all but a handful of reasons. All of a sudden, each of us is expected to stay at home, at least for the overwhelming majority of our days. And, when we do venture out, we must be careful to maintain appropriate distance from others.

This turnaround in social norms has been hastened and enforced by the public shaming, often on social media, of those who breach their demands. This involves posting, sharing, commenting on, and liking photos and videos of those who seem to be violating these norms, for example, by taking leisurely strolls in a busy park, sunbathing at the beach, or boarding a packed train. Twitter is currently awash with examples, from all around the world, using the hashtag #COVIDIOTS. Even the authorities have got in on the action, with Derbyshire Police releasing drone footage of people walking in the Peak District. And Italian mayors have been real trailblazers.

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In Defence of Children’s Civil Disobedience

In this post, Nikolas Mattheis (University of Bayreuth) defends school strikes for climate against the objection that school attendance is mandatory. Children’s strikes should be viewed as civil disobedience (rather than truancy) and as a legitimate form of democratic participation.

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