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Newsletter for April 2001

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Justice : making restitution rather than retribution

Last month's ForgivenessNet update featured some of the insights of Sharon Lamb into giving forgiveness a public, civic status.  This raised the whole issue of offenders making restoration for their wrongs. 

A few years ago, a survey claimed that over 80% of Americans want to retain the death penalty, with 49% giving as the main reason "an eye for an eye."   We seem normally to think of justice as punishment based on some 'equivalence' with the crime - a response which is "only fair". 

But we may notice that if our only concern is the 'equivalence' of the action and response, we turn the whole system of judicial and penal measures into an 'equivalence to crime' ... albeit organised cruelty rather than individual.  As Gandhi said, if everyone were to follow the "eye for an eye" principle of justice, the whole world would go blind.

Retribution becomes retaliation, concealed because some bureaucracy acts on the victim's behalf.  This does not make it a better response - justice does not need to be reduced in this way.

The community's wellbeing

Citizens of any Westernised society can understandably take it for granted that justice is entirely in the hands of 'other' people - officials of the state and other legalising organisations.  In nation-state government crime is treated primarily as a disruption of the state’s security. 

This has removed the personal strand to justice from our consciousness - the concern for and management of the community's well-being, including its values, and the preservation rather than destruction of relationships.  Yet recently a number of legal and criminological philosophers, penal reformers among them, have called for the re-institution of restitution as a penal sanction.

It is striking to discover how in the past restitution was normative, whether Sumeria, the Jewish Torah, or the Roman law of Twelve Tables.  Even in the ninth century in Britain, offenders were required to restore peace by making payments to the victim and the victim’s family.

Restoration of relationship

This concern with 'restoring peace' is a profound one.  Restitution involves the victim and offender in repairing the harm done to the victim.  Unlike retributive responses to crime, restitution can repair not only material harms but relationship damage as well.

What will motivate a victim to take part in a restitutive process?  A central part of the motive is forgiveness - willingness to make a primary aim the restoration of some level of relationship ... in a new way, with new baselines, but still with those very same other people.  (For a number of people this will not be possible quickly, if at all - it depends on power as well as intention.)  

Punishment is a deliberate cruelty.  It hurts the offender.  By contrast, instead of simply increasing the total amount of harm suffered by interested parties, restitution aims at both repairing the victim, and making the offender a productive person.

Read more at:

Justice through restitution

Civic notions of forgiveness

Forgiveness for the Holocaust?

or visit:

Restorative Justice Online

Restorative Justice

Restitution Incorporated

Andrew Knock

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