On March 23rd, the Syrian Democratic Forces finally conquered the city of Baghuz, the last bastion of ISIS militants, marking the end of four years of wars against the Islamic State. With the fall of the Caliphate, thousands of new refugees, mainly women and children, have flooded the already crowded refugee camps of the region. Many of these people were held captive by terrorists in the occupied territories, but others chose to join ISIS of their own will.


Indeed, some women that are now living in the camps made a long journey to join the Islamic State in Syria: they come from Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, but also from France, Germany, the UK, and even the US. Most of them joined ISIS years ago, attracted by the idea of a religious State. However, they found themselves trapped in a very different situation from what they had imagined, and they now terribly regret that decision. Desperate to seek a better life for themselves and for their children, many European women have pleaded to the governments of their home countries to let them return home, declaring that they are ready to stand trial and undergo the appropriate punishment.

However, the majority of Western States have decided that they don’t want them back. The case of Shamima Begum, the British national who joined ISIS when she was only a teenager and was stripped of her British citizenship, made headlines across Europe, but there are dozens more women who are being ignored by their states, like the American-born Hoda Muthana. There has been a lot of debate, especially surrounding Begum’s situation, especially when she lost her child due to the terrible living conditions in the camps. Journalists, politicians, and lawyers have expressed their opinions, focusing on questions of morality, security, and redemption. However, there is a crucial point in this case that nobody has addressed, and it concerns our concept of justice.

Through the history of the Western world, justice has been administered according to two broad principles: the retributive principle, and the rehabilitative principle.

Rehabilitative justice is a fairly recent concept, and it’s characterized by the fact that it doesn’t aim to punish criminals, but to re-educate them, so that after the time spent in prison they can return to society and play an active role in it. Its intent is to fight recidivism and to give people different alternatives, as well as a chance to better themselves. The very existence of work programs and literacy programs inside prisons is based on the rehabilitative principle, which represents an innovative and progressive step of our legal and social system.

Before its adoption, justice was administered through the retributive approach, which is much more ancient, as it is present in the Bible, in Roman Legal Codes, and it was kept in use until the twentieth century. One reason for its longevity is surely its clarity and immediacy: the punishment for a crime must always be a loss proportionate to what has been inflicted by the criminal. It’s a very straightforward idea of justice, focused on preventing crimes thanks to the fear of sanctions. According to retributive justice, criminals should be simply locked up for a time proportional to the gravity of their felony, without particular assistance or rehabilitation programs. This is shockingly similar to what is happening to European former ISIS brides, which are effectively left in exile in a foreign territory.

Unfortunately, if this is the most striking example of a new tendency, it is not the only one. Recidivism statistics are rising all over Europe, especially regarding young convicts. According to the UK Ministry of Justice, in 2016 juvenile offenders had a proven reoffending rate of 42,3 per cent. This means that our justice system is losing its focus on rehabilitation and prevention, and it’s becoming more and more punitive. Prisons are not to be termed ‘corrective facilities’ anymore, as they’re reluctant to ‘correct’ anything.

How will this tendency affect our society? Supporters of the retributive system may argue that harsh punishments and fewer services inside prisons will deter people from committing crimes. The message would be that people receive what they deserve, without discounts or mitigation. However, there are many other consequences to a shift towards retributive justice: no one will be willing to investigate what pushed people to commit crimes, and, it would be more difficult to identify critical situations and structural problems inside communities. The interruption of rehabilitative programs for inmates would make it harder for them to adjust to a normal life: more people would end up in jail for a second time, putting a strain on the prison system. And worst of all, vulnerable people will be left alone, portrayed as irrevocably guilty and unworthy of a second chance. Our administration would move from being a supportive institution to an indifferent judge, assigning fair punishments and then abandoning its convicted citizens.

Supporters of rehabilitative justice must defend their stance more actively if they want to prevent these changes from happening. Otherwise, their view of justice will gradually be replaced by the retributive system as already witnessed in the cases of former ISIS brides — where criminals are denied any kind of assistance.