Emotionality, Rationality, and Restorative Justice: Some Feminist Issues

Kimberly J. Cook, University of Southern Maine

Restorative justice is an increasingly popular approach to juvenile crime, adult crime, corporate crime, and inter-ethnic conflicts. Bold claims are made as to its applicability for incorporating the emotional realities of crime for victims, offenders, and other participants. Using field notes compiled while traveling around Australia (and some in New Zealand) during 2001, I examine issues related to rationalized justice in an emotional context. Advocates of restorative justice suggest that, rather than processing cases through courts, offenders and victims needs are better served in a system that encourages their emotional presence, personal `accountability' and collective views on how to repair the acknowledged damage. Rather than emphasizing punitive responses to the harms done, a restorative approach intends to emphasize the apparently damaged relationships between people and aims to develop strategies for repairing those damaged relationships. Recognizing that punitive responses often compound the harms, advocates for restorative justice argue that offenders are less likely to re-offend when given the opportunity to make amends for their actions. Advocates claim, therefore, if crime is about harm then justice should be about healing (Braithwaite 2002). Restorative justice is not about establishing guilt or innocence, blame or fault, but rather it attempts to provide a forum for healing the injuries that were created as a result of the offense. During the diversionary conferences observed it is quite common for people to weep, to laugh, to express anger, to forgive, and to show renewed affection for each other. These gestures of healing and/or cleansing are one important source of magic for the restorative justice approach that courts have neglected. The most commonly documented and discussed emotion associated with the diversionary conference approach is `shame' (see Braithwaite 2001 for a current review of these findings, and Ahmed, et al. 2001, for the latest revisions of shaming theory). These are complex theories and findings, which cannot be fully summarized. Several concepts are important for restorative justice theory and practice. First, and perhaps most important is the issue of `accountability'. For advocates and participants, accountability consists of the offender recognizing the damage caused by his or her actions, without necessarily imposing punitive sanctions. If offending is dehumanizing, then accountability is recognizing such dehumanization and reversing it. By discussing the harms, injuries and other consequences, the victim and offender can regain perspective on each other as people who are connected through a series of events. These events, however damaging, can be repaired when accountability involves a holistic view of injuries inflicted by the offender's actions.

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Updated 05/20/2006