Society today has increasingly high expectations of criminal justice professionals. We expect them to engage with local communities, to deal effectively and fairly with young people, to work successfully with other service providers, to catch, sentence and supervise criminals, and target resources effectively, but to do so without alienating or stereotyping any groups in society. We expect them to acquit themselves
honourably in situations that would test anybody’s judgement and powers of self-control and we hold them to account (often publicly) when they are perceived to have failed in their duty. The jobs that we ask criminal justice professionals to perform are fraught not only with practical challenges, but also with very complex ethical difficulties. More and more, criminal justice services and workers are being asked to account for the decisions they have made and the policies they have adopted.
Keele’s MA programme in the Ethics of Policing and Criminal Justice was launched in 2006 with the aim of equipping police officers and those in other Criminal Justice professions (e.g. probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, prison officers) with the skills that they need to make good ethical decisions and to argue convincingly for the policies and actions they have chosen.
The programme, taught jointly by ethicists and criminologists, is the first of its kind in the UK, and is designed to be taken part-time over two years alongside full-time employment (there is also a full-time option). In the first year, major topics in ethical and social theory, investigation, enforcement, prosecution and punishment are covered in four three-day taught modules. In the second year students write a dissertation on a topic of their choice under the guidance of a personal supervisor.
Many of the issues on this course are taught through case studies. There is no shortage of these in the media. Take, for instance, the recent controversy about the creation of a ‘superdatabase’ of all phone and internet communication. Such a database could be a rich resource for the purposes of law enforcement, but also attracts considerable criticism on privacy grounds.
This controversy demonstrates the tension that exists between privacy and the needs of criminal investigations. Privacy is widely considered to be a basic human right, gaining its importance from its relationship to autonomy (the ability to control what happens in one’s own life). Although most people would accept that some invasions of privacy are necessary in order to further the goals of criminal justice, it is not at all clear where acceptable gathering of information for these purposes ends, and where unjustified breaches of privacy begin. In order to identify where such a line might be, and what uses of a superdatabase would be ethically defensible, it is necessary to get much clearer about what privacy means and what values might compete with it. We aim to equip our students to identify the main ethical features of debates like this and to construct a position that they can defend in a reasoned and convincing way. And this, after all, is what the exercise of professional judgement demands.
• For more information visit www.keele.ac.uk/ethics or phone 01782 734 084.