An innate sense of fairness is hardwired into us, because humans evolved by building large social groups that depend on fair co-operation and rewarding positive behaviour.
Study after study shows that fairness is at the top of most people’s priorities for society.
We all know what unfairness looks like. But to date we have struggled as a society to come together around a positive vision of fairness as an organising principle for society and the economy. This is a missed opportunity, because, as More in Common argued in Britain’s Choice in 2020:
there is a consensus on the need to address inequality that transcends political divisions and reflects majority views... most believe that the economy does not afford enough opportunity for those who work hard and want to get ahead… [and] integrate a belief in personal responsibility [with] the need to do more to reduce inequality.
Last November, we published The Fair Necessities, which proposes a five-pointed definition of fairness: fair essentials, fair opportunities, fair rewards, fair exchange, and fair treatment. Subsequent polling found strong public support. And today we’re publishing The Fairness Index, which brings together a range of existing indicators to paint a more detailed picture of how (un)fair society is now, and to suggest practical solutions to build a fairer country.
The Fairness Index doesn’t have a strong focus on the criminal justice system (we summarise the content that does relate to justice here); instead it looks at inequalities around wealth, health, education, tax, and pay. But, precisely for this reason, I believe that it – and the broader fairness agenda – can be helpful to advocates of criminal justice reform.
Justice is intertwined with everything else. Education, economics, class, race, work, welfare, housing, even health.
David Lammy, Labour Party conference speech, September 2021
How so? It goes without saying that we would want to draw attention to the lack of fair process that afflicts many parts of the justice system and those whose lives are affected by it: the disproportionate targeting of young black men by the police, cuts to legal aid that leave those without means unable to defend themselves adequately, rules about joint enterprise that disadvantage young black and minority ethnic people, the unjustly harsh treatment of prisoners on remand, the ongoing scandal of prisoners with indeterminate sentences, and so on.
To prevent prisoners committing more crimes we have to understand them as humans, we need to understand their pasts.
Rory Stewart, former Prisons Minister, January 2019
But I think that we can also use the language of fairness to inject new energy into the arguments for systemic change, to draw attention to the social determinants of crime, just as colleagues in the health sector are doing with the social determinants of health.
I would hope that the evidence in the Fairness Index about the nature, extent, causes and consequences of socio-economic disadvantage can provide useful ammunition to those who argue that the criminal justice system is unfair because it perpetuates and punishes disadvantage rather than helping offenders to reintegrate into society.
For those who are making the case that the criminal justice system is more interested in being tough on crime than in tackling its root causes (poverty, poor housing, poor quality jobs and so on, and the problems that arise from them, such as disadvantage in the education system and in the labour market), I hope that it can play a useful role in synthesising some of the evidence for, and arguments about, those root causes.
The Fairness Index also points to solutions that will help people to avoid encountering the criminal justice system in the first place.
We know that there are politicians on both sides of the aisle who already understand these arguments well. But in today’s febrile political environment, there is a greater need than ever to communicate them to those who do not. And using the arguments and language of fairness could be a useful way to reach and influence those people.