Justice: What every man deserves

An essay competition draws thoughtful young writers province-wide

For Grade 12 writers, the prize with the most prestige in the province may be the $1,500 first place award in UBC's Faculty of Arts essay contest.

This year 2,600 entries on the subject of "Justice" were judged by 10 UBC instructors, four professors emeritii and a final committee of five. Prince George Secondary School's Alayna van Leeuwen won the top honour for her essay, which is reprinted here.

"We want young writers in the province to know UBC faculty are interested in their writing," says English Assoc. Prof. Ronald Hatch, chair of the competition.

The contest also included a category for Grade 11 students and one in French for Grade 12 native speakers and immersion students, adds English Prof. Margery Fee, associate dean of Arts, Students, whose office funds the competition and handles the massive amount of paper work.

For Grade 12 students there is a $1,000 second prize, $500 third prize, 25 distinguished performance certificates with a $50 UBC Bookstore voucher and 30 honourable mentions.

More than 600 Grade 11 students competed for prizes ranging from $750 to $250.

A list of all winners and their essays can be viewed at

What every man deserves

by Alayna van Leeuwen, Prince George Secondary School

According to Francis Bacon, "Justice consists in giving every man what he deserves." This simple, succinct quote reflects the essence of what most people's sense of justice is. Ultimately, justice seeks to give each man a fair, well-deserved reward or punishment. This quote, however, also contains a major problem that seems to be inherent in the application of justice--deciding what every man "deserves."

Justice can be such a subjective concept that fairness can often not be achieved to everyone's satisfaction. Dispensing justice in Canada's legal system consists of punishing criminal offenders, which leads to the problem of our corrections system.

The goal of punishment is to deter a criminal from committing any more crimes, and judging by the state of Canadian prisons and the recidivity rate, our justice and corrections systems obviously must have some flaws.

There are some problems inherent in the way that justice, or perhaps more accurately, punishment, works in our courts.

It is hard to determine whether these are unavoidable flaws for which there is no remedy, or if they are symptoms of an overburdened legal system. Most likely it is a combination of both because the courts would not be so overburdened if justice had no flaws; if the courts weren't so congested, the flaws might be less problematic. An example is that because justice deals with human beings, human error and human nature can cause problems. A young man I know was sentenced to three and a half years for a series of thefts. Days later he read of the same judge, on the same day, immediately after his sentencing, punishing a convicted pedophile to less than one year for the molestation of a young girl.

Hopefully there are some valid reasons for the judge's decision; however, this seems fundamentally wrong, in effect, to place a higher value on property than on a young girl's innocence.

This is likely a very extreme example, but the very fact that this example exists is symptomatic of the problems in serving justice that occur in our justice system.

Our corrections system, too, is full of problems.

In general, the climate of prisons seems to serve not to correct, but to worsen behaviour. The same young man mentioned above entered federal prison having no drug problem and, three and a half years later, left with a heroin addiction which landed him back in prison less than a year later.

A system designed to "correct" behaviour in which heroin is perhaps even easier to find than on the street is undeniably a flawed one.

Our astronomically high recidivity rate is another telling symptom of a poor method of dealing with criminals.

Statistics show that most inmates are from bad family backgrounds and are often poorly educated; combining this with a jail term in which education and skills training can sometimes be difficult to access is almost an assurance that a former inmate will recidivate.

The transition from prison to the street can sometimes be difficult. An inmate who can live in a halfway house may have a better chance than one who is released with little or no money, support, or resources, as sometimes occurs.

Perhaps harsher punishment would help alleviate the strain on the justice system by being a more serious deterrent. Perhaps more effort should be made to rehabilitate rather than gain revenge.

Trying to implement more education programs might help. Certainly trying to lessen the flow of drugs into prisons would help. Alternative sentencing that seeks to hold the criminal accountable by ways other than simply locking him up or to create in the criminal sympathy for victims may help in some cases. Canada should choose either to punish or rehabilitate rather than sending mixed messages.

There is no perfect justice system, and Canada's is certainly not the worst example, but improvement is necessary.

Bacon's ideal of justice, "giving every man what he deserves," is a worthy one and we should work towards having our justice system reflect that.