2017-2018 Social Justice Debates

2017-2018 Social Justice Debates Selected Scholar: Each year the Social Justice Debates are inspired by the works of a different social justice scholar. 2017-2018's Social Justice Debates Selected Scholar was Angela Davis.


Topic: The United States should prioritize transformative justice for violent offenders over other models of criminal justice.


Topic Statement: If jails and prisons are to be abolished, then what will replace them? This is the puzzling question that often interrupts further consideration of the prospects for abolition .... The first step ... [is] ... to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system..... An abolitionist approach ... require[s] us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions ... and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance ... Many organizations and individuals both in the United States and other countries offer alternative modes of making justice. In limited instances, some governments have attempted to implement alternatives that range from conflict resolution to restorative or reparative justice.... There is a growing body of literature on reshaping systems of justice around strategies of reparation, rather than retribution, as well as a growing body of experiential evidence of the advantages of these approaches to justice and of the democratic possibilities they promise.                                             - Angela Davis,  Are Prisons Obsolete?

In her seminal work on prison abolition, “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” Angela Davis rejects the notion there is a single alternative to jails and prisons and calls instead for scholarship imagining a constellation of strategies that includes a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. The 2017 Social Justice Debates aspire to answer Davis’s call for scholarship by scrutinizing the question of whether prioritizing transformative justice for violent offenders might serve as one important element of a larger constellation of strategies for prison abolition.


Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, transformative justice is often described as an "extension" of restorative justice that goes beyond restoring injured stakeholders to transforming all parties involved for the better. Specifically, restorative justice generally includes at least two elements: (1) all injured stakeholders have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected and to help decide what should be done to repair the harm; and (2) rather than being punished, offenders are asked to acknowledge their crime and attempt to atone for it. Transformative justice adds to this restorative justice framework by engaging communities to transform societal structures, provide victims with answers for why they were victimized, provide restitution, and promote public peace and order.


During the SJD affirmative teams will be expected to broadly defend the prioritization of transformative justice (as defined above) over other models of criminal justice. This includes defending the desirability of seeking decarceration alternatives for a substantial majority of violent offenders. Judges will be instructed that negative teams may defend either the status quo or propose a competing model of criminal justice and argue this competing model is superior to transformative justice.


Teams are asked to avoid focusing debates on extreme examples such as offenders who have been confirmed to be serial killers or serial child predators. Although such examples also pose challenges for prison abolition scholarship, they likely require different solutions than those suited for the more common violent offenses that are the focus of the SJD.

Schedule: The 2017-2018 Social Justice Debates Series featured two tournaments, the John Jay Social Justice Debates hosted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and the Morehouse Social Justice Debates National Championship hosted by Morehouse College.

Winners: The 2017-2018 Social Justice Debates were closed out by George Washington University which featured two teams in the finals.

Semifinalists: The semifinalists were two teams from Morehouse College.