Critical Engagement — Tadros

Tadros, in his piece, Poverty and Criminal Responsibility, argues that poverty is a valid reason to exempt certain people, in certain circumstances, from criminal responsibility. To begin his argument, Tadros makes two assumptions about a hypothetical society. First, he assumes that the poor people in a society are poor as a result of distributive injustice. Second, he assumes that because these people are poorer than they ought to be, they are more likely to commit criminal offenses (Tadros, 391). In other words, poverty is criminogenic — it increases the crime rate. [I will address these assumptions at the end of this piece.]

Tadros seeks to find out to what extent these two assumptions “undermine the entitlement of the society to hold poor individuals criminally responsible for what they do” (391). Because the poor may not be provided with sufficient education or other avenues of socialization, they may also lack “status responsibility” which means that they could be exempt from criminal responsibility as well. As Tadros realizes, however, denying status responsibility results in a denial of the basic “range of right and obligations” that citizens have and thus should only be resorted to in extreme situations (392).

It could also be argued that the poor are justified in some of the crimes they commit, especially those crimes that are perpetrated against people who have “more than their fair share” of the wealth. By taking from the more wealthy in society, the poor, Tadros says, could “move the distribution of wealth in the direction of justice” (392). Another alternative to consider is that there is a distinction that should be made between blaming someone for their crime and then actually requiring them to shoulder the burdens for what they do. If we (the government/society) decide to “restrict the opportunities available to the poor,” this restricts our ability to punish them for their crimes, since we actually perpetrated the injustice. To put it another way, “by perpetrating distributive injustice against the poor, we might lose standing to hold them responsible for what they have done (393).

Standing can be eroded in two ways — by hypocrisy or by complicity (393). While hypocrisy is relevant, Tadros thinks complicity, which has both mens rea and actus reus components, is more applicable since the state is complicit in the crimes of the poor (398, 400). By punishing the poor for crimes that were perpetrated complicitly by the state, the state is compounding the injustices done to the poor. Tadros further says that “as victims of injustice, since they have been treated unjustly, [the poor] are entitled to distance themselves from relations of responsibility with the state” (398). Once again, the injustice is the economic inequality that is created by the state, which in turn, creates criminogenic conditions (405). The state should be interested in reducing crime and criminogenic conditions but, by perpetrating distributive injustice, the state “shows itself to have insufficient concern for the victims of crime” (405).

Tadros concludes that the poor are almost certainly more insecure than they ought to be for two reasons: poverty, which causes an increase in the crime rate, and because the poor have less wealth than they should have, and therefore have less money to spend on enhancing their security (412). Even though it is true that the poor are not “compelled” to commit crimes nor can poverty often be used as an excuse or justification for crime, “there may nevertheless be good reasons why we should not hold them responsible in a criminal trial for the crimes they commit” (413). Since we (i.e. the government/state) are complicit in the crimes of the poor, we should be “co-defendants rather than judges” and we should “accept responsibility for what they responsibly do” (413).

For the last section of this post, I will consider some of the assumptions Tadros made at the beginning of his piece and raise questions about some of his comments. First, he begins by mentioning a particular, but unnamed, society that he says is probably representative of many societies. He then provides two assumptions about that society, which were mentioned above (391). As Tadros acknowledges later, these assumptions and ideas are very controversial, and (at least most of) his argument rests on the assumptions that the poor are poor because of distributive injustice and that poverty is criminogenic (405). The latter assumption could be proven empirically, and I believe that it has in fact been proven that crime (or at least inequality, where the distinction is relevant) is correlated with poverty. That being said, the former assumption, that the poor are poor because of distributive injustice is one that I would disagree with. Economic inequality does not necessarily stem from economic injustice. Although we do not know which country(ies) or society(ies) Tadros has in mind, it is probably fair to assume that he is talking about the United States or the United Kingdom (where his paper was originally published) or somewhere in the West. At least in the United States, it is not the role of the government to “redistribute” wealth to make wealth more equal or spread out. Further, the possibility that Tadros provides where the poor (who are “poorer than they ought to be”) are entitled to commit crimes in order to take goods from those who have “more than their fair share” seems wrong — how could one injustice in response to another (perceived?) injustice create actual justice (392)? How poor is too poor? Further, how much wealth should someone have before it is determined that they have “more than their fair share?” How does Tadros define poverty and which crimes does he think that the poor are entitled to commit without being held responsible? For example, it may be justified, if the government is truly being unjust to the poor, for the poor to be exempt from punishment for stealing food if they are starving, but it hardly seems acceptable for them to go unpunished for murder or violent crimes*. Another question I have is, if the government becomes aware/conscious (assuming it isn’t perpetuating injustice purposely) that it is creating injustice for the poor, why would they not just end the original injustice itself, rather than continuing the injustice and then acting more questionably by making up for it through not holding the poor responsible for their crimes against society? Lastly, while poverty is unfortunate, to say the least, and people who are well-off should be compassionate and help relieve poverty in tangible ways, I am not convinced that we (whether as individuals, society, or government) should feel guilt or regret or responsibility for the poverty or crimes of others unless we in fact directly committed the crime or created poverty.

*I do note that he says, “…the state must attend not only to the injustices that result from prosecution and conviction, but also the injustices that result from failure to prosecute and convict” but it is not entirely clear to me what falls into this category (412–413).

Tadros, Victor. (2009). Poverty and Criminal Responsibility. J Value Inquiry, 43:391–413. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-009-9180-x.

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