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Healing Hearts or Righting Wrongs?: A Meditation on the Goals of “Restorative Justice”

Waldman, Ellen A
June 4, 2015

Source: (2004) Special issue, “Fall 2003 Dispute Resolution Institute Symposium”, Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy. 25(2): 355-373.

Only a stone could sit unmoved by the stories recounted in the public halls and private gatherings at Hamline’s symposium on Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice practitioners told of their work on tribal reservations and inner cities. They told of troubled youth, sitting before community elders, feeling, for the first time, abashed and ashamed. They told of victims, flush from a confrontation with their tormentors, released at last from the lacerations of anger, grief, and fear. They told of community authorities, taking stock of the many ways in which violator and violated alike were abandoned, and vowing to do better. These are powerful stories. Taken together, they envisioned a radical reinvention of our current criminal justice system grounded in retributive principles. They imagined a system that replaces punishment with empathy, alienation with integration, and retribution with ubuntu, the African term for communitarian recognition.
Restorative Justice adherents clearly have the faith of believers. Indeed, the symposium vibrated, at times, with the fervor of a Baptist revival. But, as with any utopian movement, enthusiasm for the cause occasionally outran reasoned self reflection and criticism. While Restorative Justice principles are undeniably attractive, questions regarding their normative underpinnings and practical application remain…
This essay will explore these different understandings of the various goals of justice in restorative and retributive schemas, and situate these understandings in a brief accounting of South Africa’s experiment with restorative justice principles at the close of the apartheid era…. Rather than establish a criminal court akin to the Nuremburg tribunal assembled after World War II, the South African government convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). (excerpt)


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