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Howard Zehr on what restorative justice and revenge have in common

June 25, 2009

I have heard prisoners as well as residents of our inner cities talk
about what it takes to survive in their violent environments.  If they
are wronged, they feel they have to over-react.  Only by being seen as
irrationally violent will they be safe from future attacks.  In this
perception, only the threat of revenge can provide safety in a lawless
environment.  This, says, McCullough, has been one of the functions of
revenge historically:  to provide some semblance of safety in
situations where “pacified social spaces” don’t exist. This is,
however, a very shaky and dangerous state.  

Structures of retribution such as criminal justice systems, with
their emphasis on a measured, proportional, response are one effort –
though far from ideal – to provide such pacified social spaces.  We are
less likely to take things into our own hands when we know that some
kind of justice will be done, when balance and honor will be restored.

What does this tell us about justice?  One important implication is
that when a wrong occurs, we need a response that acknowledges the
wrong and in some way balances the score.  To be balanced, however, it
seems essential that the resulting obligation must be costly for
offenders; given the pain and harm, if the offenders action isn’t
difficult, it doesn’t feel satisfying. 

Read the whole entry.



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