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Social Injustice, Disadvantaged Offenders, and the State’s Authority to Punish

Andrei Poama, Assistant Professor at Leiden University, published a piece in the journal of Political Philosophy about social injustice, disadvantaged offenders and the state's authority to punish.

Andrei Poama
19 May 2020

On August 16, 2015, Louisa Sewell, a 32‐year old woman living in Kidderminster, England, faced the magistrates’ criminal court and admitted to stealing a pack of chocolate bars. In mitigation of her guilty plea, Sewell’s defense lawyer argued that her client had been hungry for days and, with her welfare benefits suspended and unable to turn to friends or family for help, had decided to stay her hunger by shoplifting one of the cheapest food items in the store. The criminal court’s ruling dismissed the excuse and imposed a £328.75 fine: £73 as a criminal sanction, £150 in court administrative charges, £85 in prosecution costs, £20 as a victim surcharge, and 75 pence in compensation to the store. Upon sentencing, the chairman of the magistrates’ bench justified the decision by saying that “we do not readily accept you go into a shop to steal just for being hungry”. 

Sewell’s case is not unique. Many contemporary liberal democracies that are expected to treat their citizens fairly allow for levels of inequality that push some people—most notably, those who find themselves subject to burdensome forms of social and economic disadvantage—to the brink of criminal acts. Some object that, when faced with Sewell‐like cases, magistrates are wrong not to admit hunger or other similar necessity defenses. Others worry that, whether hunger should count as an excuse or not, stealing chocolate once is not a blameworthy action or that responding to such petty theft represents a prudentially undue burden on the criminal justice system.

Poama assesses in the article the radical objection that punishing offenders like Sewell is wrong because people who commit crimes in a context where they are subject to serious injustice can sensibly argue that the state is no longer in a position to punish and condemn them.

To read the full publication, click here. 

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