THE VERDICT in the Derek Chauvin case should provide a boost to the American people, since it affirms a part of our criminal justice system. A Minnesota police officer murdered an innocent black man in a horrific and unforgettable way, but a jury in Minnesota found that police officer guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Had the verdict been “not guilty” on all three charges, riots would have spread throughout the country and there would have been good cause for shattered faith in our courts even beyond the disrespect with which many Americans, especially Black Americans, hold it today.
Make no mistake, a part of the criminal justice system functioned very effectively in finding Chauvin guilty as charged on all three counts. At the same time, a different part of the system failed miserably in enabling the murder of George Floyd to take place. Police brutality, especially toward Black Americans, is real, is prevalent, is unethical, and is a disgrace.
The concept of justice is about as protean a concept as is discussed in moral and political philosophy. Others that rival it for complexity include freedom, equality, and autonomy. It seems fair to say that justice was served in the Chauvin trial. But some commentators are saying that justice will only be served when our entire society is changed.
Academics frequently make a distinction between two major kinds of justice: criminal and distributive, or social justice. Criminal justice concerns rights citizens have before the law, such as the right to an attorney, the right to a fair trial, and the right against self-incrimination. The criminal justice system includes all of the local, state, and federal officials, including police officers, whose job it is to protect the public and uphold the law.
Distributive or social justice concerns how a society organizes its political and especially its economic system, including how it redistributes wealth and power in order to fight disease, pollution, poverty, and natural disasters. Whether a society has a $15 minimum wage, a national paid parental leave policy, or an interstate highway act is not a matter of criminal justice. It is a matter of distributive justice.
Liberals, moderates, conservatives, libertarians, and socialists have competing views of distributive justice. Their views about the criminal justice system may also be different and frequently are. di
In the case of George Floyd, to say that justice is served is to say that the criminal justice system, which failed him, nevertheless did justice for him after he was murdered by conducting a fair trial and finding the defendant guilty based on the evidence the prosecution brought forth.
There can be no doubt that we need to reform the criminal justice system, especially with new federal laws that place restrictions on the conduct of police officers (like banning chokeholds) and provide the Department of Justice with legal mechanisms to regulate state and local criminal justice systems.
The George Floyd Justice and Policing Act currently stalled before the 50/50 U.S. Senate is the bill in the limelight, since it would provide much needed criminal justice reform.
Treating African Americans in a more “just” way in our society also involves reforming our distributive justice system, because we must continue to attack systemic racism in our cities and counties by providing a more just distribution of income, wealth and power as it concerns housing, education, health care, and employment.
T.S. Eliot memorably said in his Four Quartets, “Humility is endless.” The same can be said of justice. There can be justice in a court trial, but there can also be work we must do to improve our entire criminal justice system and our entire distributive justice system.
Democrats and Republicans do not agree on many matters of distributive justice, and they do not agree on all matters of the criminal justice system either, including laws concerning the ownership and use of guns and semi-automatic assault rifles.
As Americans, we have witnessed the success of one part of the criminal justice system in Minnesota even as we recognized the failure of this same system. The national debate will continue about what changes are needed from here in both our criminal justice and our distributive justice systems.
Dave Anderson has taught political philosophy at five universities and is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework.”