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Desert and Fairness in Criminal Justice


Moral condemnation has become the public narrative of our criminal justice practices, but the distribution of criminal sanctions is not and should not be guided by judgments of what individual wrongdoers morally deserve. Criteria for evaluating a person's liability to criminal sanctions are general standards that are influenced by how we understand the relative social urgency and priority of reducing crimes of various types. These standards thus depend on considerations that are not a matter of individual moral desert. Furthermore, the moral desert is doubtful when members of socially disadvantaged groups face unequal prospects for being subjected to criminal justice sanctions. Social injustice is an intolerable context for distributing punishment according to individual desert. A rights-protecting scheme of criminal justice might permissibly burden individual offenders, but not as an expression of what they morally deserve.

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