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The sociological imagination: Restorative justice

April 22, 2014

Having a “war on crime” mentality essentially divides society into two camps distinguished by deviance, defined broadly by sociologists as behavior that is recognized as violating social expectations and norms (e.g., criminal activity). Societal reactions to deviant behavior suggests that social groups create deviance through rule-making and labeling groups and individuals who depart from them as outsiders. In the battle of “us versus them,” the former comprises victims and other non-criminals, while the latter comprises the deviant offender and thus a fundamentally different kind of person. This assumption can have critical consequences for the administration of justice and generally follows the pattern identified by sociologists as labeling theory, which argues that people become deviant as a result of being labeled as such and then adopting that identity.

Howard Becker, a prominent sociologist of the late 20th century, argues in his book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance that those who are prone to rule-breaking behavior see themselves as morally at odds with others within rule-abiding, mainstream society until they come to adopt the label of being an outsider, separating and distinguishing themselves from the rest of society. The conventional justice system uses this dichotomous framework, largely ignoring the fact that most individuals have been both criminal and victim at some point in their lives, and essentially aims to convince a judge and jury that the offender on trial is merely a deviant who deserves to be isolated from the rest of society, oftentimes using victims as tools to facilitate this process. Shame and fear of punishment are presumed to be primary motivators for deterrence of crime. The criminal law doctrine essentially presumes that people knowingly commit wrongful acts and thus only fear of punishment can curtail recidivism. 

Restorative justice, on the other hand, is centered on defiance theory, which aims to engage people in moral discussions about whether their actions are wrong based on the idea that people who commit these actions believe or convince themselves they are not acting immorally. By having both victim and offender engage in dialogue that centers on potentially harmful consequences of their actions, offenders can re-define their actions based on their knowledge of harm to others, often resulting in regret and remorse, which can be helpful in preventing them from repeatedly committing the same offense. 

The broad definition of restorative justice encompasses many forms including victim-offender mediation, indirect communication through third parties, and restitution or reparation payments. These processes all generally involve four key steps: 

  1. An encounter of parties involved in the offense
  2. The amending process through which the groups works to repair harm caused
  3. Restoration of the victim and offender
  4. Resolution and action outcome

While these methods work differently on different people, a study conducted by Sherman and Strang (article here) on restorative justice in the UK and internationally found substantial reductions in repeat offending for both violence and property crime; in general, restorative justice seems to reduce crime more effectively with more, rather than less, serious crimes, particularly with crimes involving personal victims. A primary criticism of restorative just practices is that is can actually cause more harm to victims through reliving the experiences in the face of their perpetrators, however Sherman and Strang found no evidence that supports this claim and rather, found that victims and offenders who participate in restorative justice are more satisfied by the process and outcomes and are more able to cope with the aftermath of harmful actions.

…Restorative practices, applied to both spheres of education and criminal justice, have five primary advantages: 

  1. They understand how people work by being grounded in fields of psychology, sociology, and education
  2. They address pressing needs particularly as people live in increasingly disconnected societies with limited support structures
  3. They provide overarching frameworks for action through an emphasis on strengthening and repairing relationships
  4. They make discipline more effective by simultaneously holding people accountable, supporting those harmed by wrongdoings, developing empathy and strengthening the community
  5. They provide additional tools to address power imbalances and serious conflicts apart from fear and shame. 
Read the full article.


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