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Justice or Retribution?

W. Scott Cole

Posted on July 29, 2018 01:30

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They are called “courts of justice” but are the sentences handed down by judges really justice or are they retribution? Do the victims want justice or retribution? What is the difference?

In today’s world, “justice” and “retribution” often become interchangeable to the point that many people think they are the same thing.

The families of murder victims demand justice, but more often than not, their idea of justice is retribution. They insist that the murderer be put to death, and more often than not, their reasoning is that because they no longer have their family member, the murderer’s family should suffer the same loss. That is not justice and only serves to further victimize the murderer’s family; but it is the most pure form of retribution.

Victims of other crimes insist the perpetrator be sent to prison for years, if not for life, regardless of the crime. You will find no justice there either, only retribution.

Justice is not about “getting even." It is about righting a wrong based on cultural or community standards of fairness or equity. It is primarily rational. What would make the victim whole again and what would serve best to ensure that the perpetrator sees the error of his actions in such a way that he will not victimize anyone else? It is impartial and should never be personal.

Retribution, on the other hand, is extremely emotional and personal. It gives the victim or the victim’s family a sense of satisfaction and pleasure in knowing that they have gotten revenge on the perpetrator. Making the victim of a car theft, for example, whole through restitution is secondary to making the car thief pay for his theft through suffering and misery. It is a concept that starts feuds, like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and it has even started wars (remember your history lessons on the catalyst for the start of World War I?).

Yes, those who commit crimes should be punished for their actions. The primary means of that punishment is prison. What is called retributive justice focuses on punishment, sometimes to the total exclusion of restitution and rehabilitation. The problem with retributive justice is that it looks only at the crime and it’s surrounding circumstances before deciding what punishment would fit the crime. The criminal owes a debt to society. The punishment will pay that debt.

At the same time, restorative justice can focus on restitution and rehabilitation to the point of excluding punishment. It looks at what the victim has lost. The criminal owes the victim a debt and must pay for that. At the same time, every attempt must be made to rehabilitate the criminal. The problem with restorative justice is that punishment becomes a secondary consideration, but if there is no punishment, there is no incentive for the criminal to pay any attention to rehabilitation efforts.

Victims and victim advocates are usually at one end of the equation demanding retributive justice above all else, while those who commit crimes and their advocates are at the other end lobbying for restorative justice.

A compromise that will satisfy everyone is elusive and may never be found, but it is a worthy goal to strive for.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on July 29, 2018 01:30

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Source: Denver Post

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- Criminal justice reform has become a hot topic around the nation amid a conversation about easing...

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