A more humane approach to addressing the harm of criminal behaviour


In this paper, which is based upon research undertaken in 2017 and 2018,[1] an alternative and more humane approach to addressing harm of criminal behaviour is presented. Our goal was to explore if this approach could transform the way society responds to crime.

When a crime is committed, criminal justice agencies focus mainly on the perpetrator as the problem. Attending to the harm of criminal behaviour rather than the perpetrator alters the orientation of approaches to crime. It recognises both the suffering caused by crime to victims, their families and the community and the suffering that causes people to harm others.

In addition to suffering caused, the meaning of the harm is also mediated by its wrongfulness. That it has no justification in law matters. For Shklar, injustice is often experienced through powerful, often distressing, emotions specific to the individual.[2] It interrupts and disrupts lives, causing “shattered assumptions” about living in a world which can undermine the capacity to participate in society.[3] The effects of experiencing injustice will often continue to dominate an individual’s life long after physical wounds have healed, punishment has been inflicted, or compensation received.

Consequently, many victims experience “secondary victimisation” by the criminal justice system which strives to engage with crime in an impersonal and rational manner.[4] What are considered to be risk factors associated with offending, can be viewed from a humane perspective as harmful events or conditions which perpetrators of crime have experienced.[5] A humane approach will understand that the reactions of society, the media, and the criminal justice system to crime play a significant part in adding to the harm endured by both victims and perpetrators.[6] Social and criminal justice reactions often exclude victims and perpetrators from necessary resources, weaken significant relationships, and reduce personal responsibility, thus obstructing both recovery and reintegration.[7]

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its goals are drafted to contribute to a safer world by reducing conflicts, crime rates and people’s vulnerabilities and exposure to organized crime. Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda is centered on promoting peaceful, just and inclusive societies, free from crime and violence, with justice for all. We will explain how focusing more on harm than on crime and using more humane or participatory reactions such as restorative justice approaches can contribute to this end. In the following sections we explain the values of more humane approaches, we address possibilities for change and the potential of restorative justice and we end with some conclusions.

Humane approaches

The harm of criminal behaviour extends beyond those immediately affected to society at large, causing fear of crime, reducing social cohesion, exacerbating intergroup prejudice and conflict, and demoralising whole communities.[8] People can lose a common belief in a just, stable and moral society. People’s sense of control over their lives and their ability to participate actively in society are diminished by the harm of criminal behaviour.

Humane approaches to addressing the harm of criminal behaviour aim to restore the internal and external resources required to participate actively in society to people responsible for harm, people who have been harmed, and others who have been affected. Humane practices would have the purpose of preventing or undoing injustices, and restoring the individual, relational and social harms that have caused and been caused by criminal behaviour.

The values that shape more humane approaches relate to the value we place on the individual, the value we place on how individuals relate to each other, and the quality of the society we aspire to create. The concepts of “the common good”, “dignity of the individual”, “solidarity”, and “social justice” can frame what a human response to crime looks like: a response that respects, restores and sustains these values, as opposed to one that disregards, damages or violates them. From this viewpoint, a just society provides people with the opportunities and capacities to participate in their communities for the common good in a way that they choose.

The dignity of human beings is derived from the value of human life and the potential of people’s capacity to choose their actions and to be responsible for them. To be a victim of a crime is to be treated as a means to another’s end or to be objectified. This is dehumanising and humiliating. Respect requires a refusal to stereotype, stigmatise, objectify or idealise individuals. Solidarity is derived from mutual responsibility and reciprocal support. Human beings can only live in relation to others.[9] Both actions for the common good and harmful behaviour have a “ripple effect” beyond those directly responsible and those directly affected by them. Families, friends, neighbours and communities have a stake in repairing harm and alleviating suffering. While other people may be a potential threat, they are also essential to our wellbeing.

Social justice refers to fair and right relations, to the redistribution of resources and to the removal of obstacles to equality of opportunity and full participation in society. This is the foundation of human rights and of many international statements on crime and criminal justice. More recently it has focused on the value of diversity. Social justice can also address the neglect of victims and discrimination against offenders.

These values inform key principles of humane practice. Rather than seeing individuals as simply products of their genes, their upbringing or their environment, a humane approach recognises their capacity to make meaning out of situations and events, to choose actions, to reflect upon those actions, to learn and to generate new understandings. More humane approaches offer opportunities for all parties to take active responsibility for the process of addressing the harm so that they may put it behind them.

Possibilities for change and restorative justice

A harmful act creates an obligation to make things right with the individual who has been harmed and with society. By fulfilling such an obligation, the individual earns the support of society with all its benefits and responsibilities. In this way, the offender is redeemed; this is what Bazemore refers to as “earned redemption.”[10] More humane approaches should offer individuals the opportunity and support to “signal” that they are in the process of transforming themselves.

Any humane approach should be designed to enable perpetrators to desist from crime or avoid harming other people, and should support victims to recover from the harm and suffering caused by crime. Both the processes of desistance (moving away from committing crime) and of recovery from trauma have relational elements.[11]

Restorative justice espouses the values and principles that are outlined above and that meet the UN Agenda Goals. It is an inclusive approach to addressing harm through engaging all those affected in coming to a common understanding and agreement on how the harm or wrongdoing can be repaired, relationships strengthened, and justice achieved.[12]

Restorative justice places harm at the core of the justice process and engages all those who have been affected by the act of harm, including the perpetrator. The counter-intuitive aspect of the restorative process is that each party needs the other to have what has been lost or violated restored. Victims usually want those responsible for the harm to make themselves accountable in a direct and practical way. By doing so, perpetrators can earn respect by taking responsibility and making amends. Through such a process both parties may move on in their lives.

Storytelling and dialogue drive the restorative process. Arendt wrote of the ability of stories to “reclaim our human dignity.”[13] Stories represent human beings as actors rather than passive victims or objects of others’ narrative or theories. They can restore dignity and often facilitate emotional and relational connections.[14] The victim telling their story transforms the narrative from one of “shame and humiliation to a portrayal of dignity and virtue.”[15] Through a restorative process, dialogue has the capacity to “humanise what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it [the harm], and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”[16]

Meta studies show high satisfaction rates among victims, offenders and professionals that took part in a restorative justice process. The feeling of justice increases, participants feel that they are being taken seriously, the assumption of responsibility by offenders is appreciated and less recidivism is measured.[17]

For many people it is a moment of change, a new beginning, and that often relates to being heard and sharing narratives.

Conclusion Values such as the common good, human dignity, solidarity and social justice can reorientate our criminal justice system in transformative ways. Creating a more humane criminal justice system benefits everyone, in particular the person harmed and the person who has caused the harm. In these turbulent times, material self-interest, disrespect, division, inequality, and severe judgements and punishment can seem to flourish. It is critically important that alternative values continue to be applied in practical and effective ways.

The Authors

Tim Chapman is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ulster and current Chairperson of the European
Forum for Restorative Justice.

Annemieke Wolthuis is an independent researcher, trainer and mediator working for Restorative Justice
Nederland, and current Vice Chair of the European Forum for Restorative

[1]     Commissioned by a Catholic philanthropic organisation.

[2]     Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (Yale: Yale University Press, 1990.

[3]     Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a new Psychology of Trauma (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[4]     Maarten Kunst, Lieke Popelier, and Ellen Varekamp, “Victim Satisfaction with the Criminal Justice System and Emotional Recovery: A Systematic and Critical Review of the Literature,” Trauma, Violence and Abuse 16, no. 3 (2014): 336–358;
Malini Laxminarayan, Mark, Bosmans, Robert, Porter, and Lorena Sosa, “Victim Satisfaction with Criminal Justice: A Systematic Review,” Victims & Offenders, 8, no. 2 (2013): 119–147.

[5]     Vittoria Ardino, “Post-Traumatic Stress in Antisocial Youth: A Multifaceted Reality,” In Post-traumatic syndromes in children and adolescents, ed. Vittoria Ardino (Chichester: Wiley/Blackwell Publishers, 2011)

      David Farrington, “Childhood Risk Factors and Risk-Focused Prevention,” in The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, ed. Mike Maguire, Rod Morgan, and Robert Reiner (4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007);

      Robin Weeks and Cathy Widom, “Self-Reports of Early Childhood Victimization among Incarcerated Adult Male Felons,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 13, no, 3 (1998): 346–361.

[6]     Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1963); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London: Paladin, 1973); Edwin Lemert, Human Deviance, Social Problems and Social Control (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1951).

[7]     Jeremy Travs and Michelle Waul, Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities (Washington: The Urban Institute Press, 2003).

[8]     Chris Hale, “Fear of Crime: A review of the Literature,” International Review of Victimology 4, no. 2 (1996): 79–150.

[9]     Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

[10]    Gordon Bazemore, “Restorative Justice and Earned Redemption: Communities, Victims, and Offender Reintegration”, American Behavioral Scientist 41, no. 6 (1998): 768–813.

[11]    Shawn Bushway and Robert Apel, “A Perspective on Employment-Based Re-Entry Programming: Training Completion as a Desistance Signal,” Criminology and Public Policy 11, no. 1 (2012): 73–86; Beth Weaver, Offending and Desistance: The importance of social relations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).

[12]    European Forum for Restorative Justice, “Forum 15 Strategy Paper” (Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice, 2016).

[13]    Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, 1968): 216.

[14]    Meredith Rossner. Just Emotions: Rituals of Restorative Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[15]    Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing history and Genocide and Mass Violence (London: Beacon Press, 2000).

[16]    Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, 1968): 25.

[17]    Joana Shapland, A. Atkinson, H. Atkinson, J. Dignan, L. Edwards, J. Hibbert, M. Howes, J. Johnstone, G. Robinson & A. Sorsby. Does Restorative Justice affect reconviction? The fourth report from the evaluation of three schemes (Centre for Criminological Research University of Sheffield, 2008); Lawrence W. Sherman & Heather Strang. Restorative Justice: The Evidence (London: The Smith Institute, 2007).