Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

2014 Kuyper Lecture Response

James W. Skillen


By James W. Skillen

June 9, 2014

This article is based on remarks given by James Skillen in response to the 2014 Kuyper Lecture, delivered by Victor Boutros, co-author of The Locust Effect.

Victor Boutros presents a keen and urgent message: We as citizens, as well as our governments, should no longer abstract the conditions and measurements of poverty from the criminal justice institutions that are crucial for the protection of human life. Where there is little or no justice, there can be no end to poverty. Along with many others, I applaud the work of Victor Boutros and Gary Haugen and the wide network they have developed through the International Justice Mission (IJM) in fighting countless instances and modes of violence that impoverish and kill poor people around the world. 

Victor emphasizes that the underlying the problem of poverty is the problem of violence against the poor. What is needed, he says, is to transform weak and unjust institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice to the level where they can actually protect the poor instead of defending the wealthy from the poor. The biggest threats to the poor now come from police abuse, theft of property, and enslavement carried out directly by some public authorities and countenanced by others.

Yet what is the context in which law enforcement and criminal prosecution—or the lack thereof—are located? Victor pleads with us to work with him and IJM in countries where the reform of law enforcement is desperately needed to bring protection to the poor. He cites several demonstration projects in which he and IJM have been involved in Uganda, India, Kenya, Peru, Guatemala, and the Philippines, and the stories he tells are very encouraging. However, it seems to me there is a difference between the countries just mentioned and many other poor countries where violence plagues so many people.

What is that difference? Regardless of the diverse histories and cultures of the countries in which IJM is working, each has developed some kind of political and governmental order that functions as the larger context in which the reform of government’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems has become possible. Victor hints at this when he says that in almost every case where significant changes are being made, there have been four primary players: brave activists and journalists, community leaders with moral authority, lawyers and pioneering police leaders, and enlightened elites in the business community. 

My question is how could those four kinds of players have come to the fore if activists and journalists were silenced by force, if community leaders with moral authority were cut down before they could gain a following, if the lawyers and police leaders were themselves the oppressors of poor people, and if the business elite operated hand in glove with corrupt and violent officials?

Victor correctly points to the importance of historical development over the past 100 and more years, developments that have led to many advances in law enforcement in cities such as New York. But better law enforcement and criminal justice institutions in those cities did not arise independently, apart from wider political and governmental reforms, including establishment of the rule of law to hold government and citizens accountable, making room for some degree of freedom for the press and other associations of citizens, and establishing court systems that allow ordinary citizens to present suits against government corruption and abuse. My point is simply that if there can be no end to poverty without the end of violence, there can be no end to violence without an end to unjust political institutions across the board. Law enforcement and court systems are just one part of government in a political community.

In their book, The Locust Effect, Victor and Gary touch on this when, for example, they quote approvingly from a recent World Bank report that says the most important institutions for generating economic development are “the rule of law institutions (including the criminal justice system) . . .” (156). The book also refers to a report by a UN crisis group on Bosnia-Herzegovina that states, “In hindsight, we should have put the establishment of the rule of law first, for everything else depends on it: a functioning economy, a free and fair political system, the development of civil society, [and] public confidence in police and the courts” (157). 

In other words, while Victor and Gary surely do not intend to ignore political and governmental institutions other than those of law enforcement, they shine their spotlight on crime and punishment in such a way that readers may think that the reform of criminal justice systems can be pursued on its own. However, that approach is subject to the very criticism the authors direct toward poverty-fighting efforts that ignore or pay too little attention to violence that lies at the root of poverty.

Victor says that because reforms of the police and criminal justice systems have taken place in many parts of the world, we should not miss the “hope of history.” In Chapter 10 of the book, he and Gary develop this reason for hope in some detail. Yet history does not move inevitably in the direction of progress. As Victor has said, progressive reforms require at least four key actors. That is why I firmly agree that one of the primary features of any effort to develop sound criminal justice systems must be leadership development. It’s simply that leadership development must nurture the kind of leaders who understand the wider context of just and unjust governing.  It is curious to note that almost every area of the world where law enforcement is either non-existent or weak was once colonized by Western powers. In many instances, the imperial practice was to use law enforcement to protect the ruling elites from the threats of those they were ruling. It is no wonder that the poor who suffered and are still suffering violence in so many cities and countries around the world do so under regimes whose officials and police forces have inherited Western colonial practices. 

The possibility of sound law enforcement requires constitutional and wider governmental reforms, as is evident to a greater or lesser degree in the Philippines, India, Kenya, Uganda, and beyond. Of course, it is also important to recognize that those reforms depended on some of the positive components of the Western rule-of-law institutions established after centuries of war and revolution. So Western colonialism entailed positive as well as negative features.

Against this backdrop, it is also extremely important to recognize that the seemingly mature and sound law enforcement systems of highly developed countries like the United States today demand our continuing critical attention and reforming efforts. It is in the United States, after all, where sexual trafficking has become big business, where police protection is often insufficient in poorer neighborhoods, and where many prison systems degrade inmates without public outcry and motivation to reform. Those who control power and wealth still look to lawmakers, executives, and the courts to protect them from “others” and make little fuss if others do not get similar protection. It is in the United States that we find growing numbers of gated communities where the well-off hire their own security guards, ignore the law-enforcement needs of the poor, and exert considerable influence in the lawmaking process to keep their taxes as low as possible.

The problems Victor is addressing are of utmost importance and the work of IJM deserves not only our applause but also our personal involvement and financial investment. I want merely to emphasize that both at home and abroad, there is a longer history and a deeper crisis of government and politics in which institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice are embedded and play their part. The cry for justice, particularly for public justice, is a cry for sound and fair government at every level for everyone.

- James W. Skillen is the former executive director and president of the Center for Public Justice. He is the author of The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (2014); In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (2004); and With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations (2005).

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