European Perspectives on the Evaluation of Restorative Justice: Empathy, Offending and Attitudes, a Promising New Avenue for Research?

Article excerpt

Abstract

While references are frequently made in the restorative justice literature to the desirability of eliciting empathy towards their victims from offenders, little is known about whether it is in fact worthwhile to do so. Does empathy towards victims influence offenders' future behaviour? Empathy itself is an ambiguous concept which has been defined in a variety of ways. The implications for the practice and evaluation of restorative justice are that considerably greater clarity is required; the use of common measures of empathy may also be helpful. A distinction needs to be made between perspective taking and empathy; it is suggested that there is a continuum between intellectualising about other's feelings, responding compassionately to them and actively communicating with them. It is concluded that practitioner involvement in the design of future research on this topic should help to avoid further confusion.

Key words; restorative justice evaluation, empathy, perspective taking, offenders

Introduction

In recent years, criminologists have become increasingly aware of and interested in the place of feelings and emotions in studying criminal justice (Arrigo and Williams, 2003; Karstedt, 2002; Masters and Smith, 1998). The emotions experienced by victims and offenders are clearly important in considering the relationship (or lack of one) between members of the two groups, and this forms a crucial part of restorative justice theorising. As Bottoms has pointed out, a successful restorative intervention involves the victim and the offender on a very personal and often deeply affective level:

"if the apologetic discourse is to be really meaningful... one must express genuine regret and remorse for an act that has breached a shared moral code, and the other must forgive. Only in this way can prior social relationships be 'restored', although... this process itself requires continual emotional work by the parties. . . the pain and regret of the sincere apology (often a difficult matter for the offender to express), followed by the equally difficult act of forgiveness offered (perhaps uncertainly) by the wronged person, have the power to effect a social transformation" (2003, p. 96).

Surprisingly little is known about the connection between offenders' feelings of empathy towards victims, and their likely future behaviour. While it is taken for granted in much of the literature about influencing offenders' behaviour that it must be a good thing to encourage and develop feelings of empathy (see for example Buonatesta, 2004; Walgrave, 2001; Morris and Maxwell, 2001; Briggs et al, 1998), there is a lack of empirical evidence on this issue (see van Stokkom, 2002). The assumption (and presumably many practitioners' experience supports it) is that any intervention which has the effect of increasing an offender's empathy towards the victim will:

strengthen internal inhibitions against re-offending, improve the capacity for intimacy in interpersonal relationships, and contribute to maintaining the motivation to change. With empathy the offender can no longer not perceive his victim's pain (Hildebran and Pithers, 1989, p. 238).

Whether it is worthwhile to try to elicit victim empathy in offenders is a crucial question from the point of view of restorative justice practitioners, policy-makers, victim support agencies and individual victims, and it is an issue which requires a major research effort if it is to be thoroughly addressed. Some work has already been done in this area, but it reveals some gaps in existing knowledge. There are dangers in attempting to elicit empathy towards victims in inappropriate cases: the 'anger' or 'revenge' rapist, for example, gains sexual satisfaction from hearing about the pain he has caused to victims (see Teague, 19932; Scully, 1990; Stevens, 2000), which might mean that those working with such offenders would generate counter-productive effects if they referred to victims' pain and suffering in the course of trying to elicit empathy in offenders. …