‘Built for inequality in a diverse world: The historic origins of criminal justice

John Michael Moore

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Forty years ago a number of revisionist histories of the institutions of criminal justice were published. Collectively they located the emergence of the institutions of police and prisons in modernity and the advent of capitalism (see for example Foucault, 1977; Ignatieff, 1978; 1979; and Melossi and Pavarini, 1981). One book, published in 1976, that was largely overlooked by both historians and criminologists was Thorsten Sellin’s Slavery and the Penal System. Sellin (1976) proposed a radically different history, rather than focus on rupture he emphasised continuity. The contemporary criminal justice system, he argued, had its roots not in modernity but in the slave societies of Antiquity.
This paper draws on both Sellin’s Slavery and the Penal System and my paper 'Is the Empire coming home? Liberalism, exclusion and the punitiveness of the British State’ presented to the 2014 BSC conference (Moore, 2014). This allows me to demonstrate not only criminal justice’s origins in Antiquity’s slavery but also how these roots equipped criminal justice to play a central role in the colonial project of domination and exploitation.
I argue that by understanding this history we can see that the tendency to reinforce inequality and oppress the ‘other’ that characterises contemporary criminal justice is not an aberration but a natural consequence of its genealogy. Criminal Justice (and the associated discourse of criminology) was built for maintaining and enforcing inequality in diverse societies. Creating equality in a diverse world will require a strategy based around abolition, transformative solutions and decolonisation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPapers from the British Criminology Conference 2016
EditorsLizzie Seal
PublisherBritish Society of Criminology
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016

Publication series

NamePapers from the British Criminology Conference
ISSN (Print)1759-0043


  • Penal history
  • colonialism
  • Thorsten Sellin
  • institutional inequality
  • justice


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