Crime, Punishment and Faith in Change by Prof Fergus McNeill

Fergus McNeill is Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Sociology.  Before working in academia he worked in residential drug rehabilitation and as a criminal justice social worker.  This is a podcast of a talk he gave exploring the issues of crime, punishment and concepts of rehabilitation.

The issues of crime and punishment are complex and emotive.  For millenia they have been discussed and thought about, reacted to in various cultures.  There are no easy answers which seem to work towards a more peaceful society and many complex answers have been put to paper and argued from various perspectives.  There needs to be open conversations and dialogue in these areas if the best options are to be considered.
Those considerations include what makes a society fit for everyone to live in; the nature of crime; the effects of punishment and punitive societies; the changing nature of people and how they are defined by their actions past and present; human rights and dignities; contrition and forgiveness; and many more deep subjects.

What I am writing here is a primitive accompanyment to the talk which Prof Fergus McNeill has shared.  I think that the level of thought which he and others in the field have brought to the subject of criminal and social justice is important to feature in the process of making formulations about what we think and how we act in the world.


I find it troubling the violence and wrong doing which human beings have done and are capable of.  I find it troubling that one person might turn to another and bring conscious harm on them.  Equally I find the same trouble in the desire for some to damn people forever taking no account of how people might change, feel remorse or make amends for what they have done.  A world without the capacity for forgiveness is a vast battlefield incapable of peace.
Connected to the institutions of the justice system are ideas and principles which extend backwards codifying discussions which have taken place and decisions which were enacted in some collective way.  The law courts, police and prisons are the justice system formed of elect officials who act on behalf of the public interest; people who individually decide to impose punishment on others – social or otherwise – break with a social contract and weaken bonds which are used to bring us together.
When some individual has committed a crime or wrong on another person, it is the law which has been used in name to justify a corresponding response to their actions.  Commonly the law is associated with attaining justice.  John Rawls famously put forward the influencial argument about justice as fairness.  A fair society is generally agreed upon as being one which most people want; the problems lie in agreeing on what shape that takes…

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With regards to the criminal justice system there are certain laws which have been passed which limit the time and extent to which people are identified with their past actions.  The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 a piece of UK legislation which in its own words is:

“An Act to rehabilitate offenders who have not been reconvicted of any serious offence for periods of years, to penalise the unauthorised disclosure of their previous convictions, to amend the law of defamation, and for purposes connected therewith”

This is a continuation of a long line of argumentation to avoid creating a society based on damning people regardless of what they do.  I think that stripping people of human rights and creating a lifetime of punishment for those who have broken the law demeans the whole of society if it is a society which considers human rights as a part of its make up.  These are some of the aspects of a process of investigation I am doing in contemplation of the values involved in social and criminal justice of our shared society.

Editorial by Alex Dunedin


Fergus McNeill
Fergus McNeill

Fegus McNeill is involved in Distant Voices

“In a system that often thinks about things – and people – in black and white terms, Distant Voices explores what happens when we share human stories, ideas and emotions; we try to add colour back into the discussion. The project began as a collaboration between Vox Liminis and the SCCJR, and has extended to now include three Scottish universities. We team up some of Scotland’s best songwriters with people who’ve experienced the criminal justice system from lots of different angles”


Special thanks go to Edinburgh International Centre for Spirituality and Peace for organising the event with Prof McNeill