Module 1 – What Is “Justice”?


The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, the “founding documents” of the nation (, speak directly to the ideals of freedom from oppression, equality, and justice for all. Yet, some people were excluded from this American compact. For example, women were denied suffrage and property rights; African Americans were enslaved; Native Americans were pushed from their land. Historically, these groups and others have engaged in a centuries-long struggle to obtain equity. In the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century, in the United States and across the globe, social movements (see below) brought an expansion of freedom for those who were oppressed. But injustice based on individual and group characteristics, such as gender, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexuality, continues to exist.

In the United States, as elsewhere, the challenge of the 21st century is to achieve justice for all in societies that are increasingly multicultural. Justice is often defined as “fairness” or “equal treatment.” However, the concept of justice is complex. What an individual considers just is shaped not only by personal characteristics (such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status), but by the time and place in which he or she lives. What is just remains a matter for debate. Observing the same outcome of a situation, one person may say justice was done. Another may declare the outcome an injustice and great wrong.

Moreover, there are various forms of justice – criminal justice, social justice, restorative justice. Whatever form of justice we are discussing, we may find ourselves discussing not only the culpability (blameworthiness) of offenders, but the ethics of those charged with doing justice, such as police officers and lawyers. We also may discuss the role of the media in providing coverage of justice issues in our communities. The rise of social media, with the ability of citizens to use Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, to engage in discussion about legal matters (such as high-profile cases) raises even more questions about justice in a free society.

Clearly, there is much to be said about justice. In this module, you have the opportunity to examine some documents and videos relevant to this discussion and to begin thinking about what justice means to you.

Suggested Activities

Activity 1:
Listen to or read these speeches by two African American leaders, speaking over a century apart. How would you summarize the argument made by each speaker about justice and injustice?

1. “James Earl Jones Reads Frederick Douglass”
A speech delivered by former slave and abolitionist, Douglass, in 1852.

2. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
An open letter to white ministers from the Reverend Dr. King, written in April 1963, after he was arrested for non-violent protest against segregation.

Activity 2:
Read this “Law Day” address that Governor (late President) Jimmy Carter delivered at the University of Georgia, May 1974. What concerns did Governor Carter express about inequality and the law?

Activity 3:
What is “criminal justice”? How is criminal justice different from “social justice”? What do the two have in common?

1. Go to the website for the School of Criminal Justice at UAlbany and read the overview of what is taught at the School and some of the course descriptions (see Undergraduate Program and Graduate Program).

2. Listen to this video in which people are asked to offer their definition of social justice.

3. And, finally, watch this video discussion about restorative justice.

Now, how would you define justice? What does justice mean to you?