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Righting Wrongs Without Retaliation

That a perpetrator fairly pays for his actions is the aim of most modern legal systems, including the United States’. May the punishment fit the crime, every time. And for the most part, it appears people are on board with this narrowed concept of justice, as previous research tends to show strong numbers demonstrating a common desire to punish offenders. One study even revealed that people are willing to forgo up to three month’s salary to ensure a perpetrator is dealt with fairly.

But forget the bad guy for a second and consider the victim instead, because studies rarely do. Typically researchers provide its participants with only two options: punish the transgressor or accept the transgressions—“an eye for an eye” or “turn the other cheek." One study, however, chose to offer a non-punitive path to justice by focusing on the needs of the victim, and found that 9 out of 10 participants preferred compensating the victim to punishing the offender. Further evidence supporting this alternative approach to justice are the programs that prioritize victims’ needs while encouraging communication with the perpetrators, which tend to have the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.

When righting a wrong is left to a third-party judge or jury instead of to the victim, however, the change in perspective proved to breed a more unforgiving attitude. A series of follow-up studies had participants act like juries by having them either punish the offender, compensate the affected, or both, despite having no “skin in the game.” As third parties, they proved to be more vindictive than as victims, choosing the most retributive option of simultaneous punishment and reward.

But our system thrives on third-party sentiments, where a victim’s opinion is considered partial and therefore dismissed in the deliberation process. Those who conducted the study wrote in Scientific American, “Our notion of justice seems to depend on where we stand. This leaves us with a challenge: there may be a gap between what we as victims want, and what third parties decide for us, calling into question our blind reliance on the putative impartiality of judges and juries.”

When considering other studies—such as Harvard’s findings that rewarding others boosts cooperation more than punishment does, or a paper suggesting that restoring justice by punishment only increases one’s desire to punish—the sociologists concluded that “punishment, while certainly desirable in some instances, should not always be considered the gold standard of justice restoration.”

Image by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons.