What is Procedural Justice?

by Jonathan Krall

In our work, we often focus on injustice and inequity. We ask for policy changes, such as restorative practices, that reduce injustice. In these discussions we have not always centered the issues of dignity and respect. Thanks to a podcasted interview with Judge Victoria Pratt, author of The Power of Dignity, we now have better vocabulary with which to articulate the importance of dignity and respect. According to Judge Pratt, procedural justice is the recognition that dignity is a human right and that any system that does not treat people with dignity and respect is unjust. Here in Alexandria, we can apply this lesson by asking that our police officers, in non-emergency situations, always practice respect.

I know what it feels like to be treated with respect. When I was a scruffy graduate student driving a rusty car, I was once pulled over for driving too fast in a construction zone. At the time I was wearing a fleece-lined winter coat and no shirt (the fleece felt good on my skin; I’m better behaved now). The officer asked me several intrusive questions, which I politely answered (clothing choices aside, I wasn’t stupid). I felt scrutinized, but not belittled. Perhaps surprised to find that I was a well-spoken scientist-in-training, he let me go with a warning.

When I, a White man, am pulled over by a police officer, I ask why I am being stopped. I am always given an informative response. I am treated with respect. I only began to realize the significance of this fact when I, and everyone else, began seeing videos of police mistreatment of unarmed Black Americans. I will highlight only one, the Sandra Bland arrest, because no one is killed and no shots are fired. It is, nevertheless, traumatic. In the video, Ms Bland repeatedly asks “why am I being arrested?” When I watch this video, I see a woman demanding respect confronted by an officer demanding submission. The situation escalates when the officer asks Ms. Bland to extinguish her cigarette and she refuses. His immediate response: “Well you can step on out now.” When she refuses to exit her car, presumably to be searched, the officer escalates further. One might say that she could have avoided the problem by obeying each request. However, he is the professional. He is the one being paid to interact with the public.

Most of us expect to be treated with dignity and respect. When we ask for safer schools (restorative practices instead of suspensions), more democracy (ranked-choice voting), or greater access to health care (Medicare For All), we implicitly demand updated systems that uphold dignity. The language of procedural justice is a tool that makes this demand explicit.

With Sandra Bland in mind, I once asked the Alexandria Chief of Police if his officers were required, in non-emergency situations, to answer basic, informative questions such as, “Why am I being arrested?” After a pause, I received a non-answer to the effect that police officers follow established procedures. After a follow up question and another non-response, I dropped it. I was left with the impression that, for the police, treating people with dignity and respect is optional. Judge Pratt suggests that respect should instead be required. When standard operating procedure fails to uphold dignity and respect, “following procedure” isn’t good enough.

Another example of procedural injustice is addressed by Spread The Vote Virginia, an organization that helps citizens secure their right to vote, often for the first time. Sadly, returning citizens, formerly incarcerated Virginians, are returned to society without three basic documents: ID, Social Security card, and a birth certificate. Without these documents, they are not only barred from voting, they are unable to access government and commercial services of all kinds. By helping people obtain government ID cards, Spread The Vote helps them re-access their rights as citizens. The idea of procedural justice suggests, to me, that citizenship rights should never have been stripped from them in the first place. Without these essential documents, returning citizens in Virginia are being set up to fail by the very people who should be motivated to help them succeed.

Now that I know what procedural justice is, I (or any of us) can ask Police Chief Hayes the following questions: Are APD officers, in non-emergency situations, required to work within the bounds of procedural justice? Are they required to treat all people with dignity and respect? Are they required to tell people why they are being stopped or arrested? Are they required to attempt de-escalation before resorting to force? I look forward to learning the answers.

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