The Politics of Pain: A Political Institutionalist Analysis of Crime Victims' Moral Protests

By Barker, Vanessa | Law & Society Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Pain: A Political Institutionalist Analysis of Crime Victims' Moral Protests


Barker, Vanessa, Law & Society Review


Like the new social movements, crime victim movements were part of broad cultural struggles to redefine the character of social order in the late twentieth century. Motivated by pain and outrage over criminal victimization, they were engaged in highly charged moral protests over the rights and duties of state government and the relative value of human life. This article argues that the degree to which crime victims were part of a retributive movement-the restriction of criminal offenders' rights and liberties-or part of a restorative movement to repair victims' well-being depended on the political context in which they were operating, specifically the structure of the democratic process. The case studies suggest that a context with a high degree of democratization but intensive social polarization was more likely to deepen crime victims' demands for vengeance as well as provide their legal and political expression, while a context with intensive civic engagement but well-developed social trust and norms of reciprocity was more likely to bring about pragmatic measures, intermixing restorative and restrictive approaches to criminal victimization. This article seeks to extend the literature on political institutionalism by integrating the structural constraints of institutions with the power of human agency.

Current scholarship has tended to characterize the participation of crime victims in the criminal justice system as either antimodern or authentically democratic. Crime victims have been characterized as antimodern in the sense that they seek revenge and are often motivated by a desire to humiliate others, debased features of justice thought to be long buried by a technocratic and highly rational modern criminal justice system (Pratt 2000; Lynch 2002). Alternatively, crime victims have been portrayed as carriers of "republican values" in the sense that they try to maximize community participation in the restoration of victims' well-being and offenders' re-integration by minimizing the coercive role of the state and penal sanctions (Braithwaite & Pettit 1990; Strang 2002; Scheingold et al. 1994). This article complicates these prevailing characterizations of crime victim advocacy and their related penal outcomes.

I argue that the degree to which crime victims were part of a retributive movement-the restriction of criminal offenders' rights and liberties-or part of a restorative movement to repair victims' well-being depended on the political context in which they were operating. In the case studies that follow, the findings suggest that certain kinds of institutional configurations were more likely to deepen crime victims' demands for vengeance as well as provide their legal and political expression, while others were more likely to bring about conciliatory measures. Specifically, my analysis shows that structural differences in political authority, civic engagement, and modes of conflict resolution were perhaps more important to shaping penal outcomes than the crime victim movements themselves or the shared cultural context and social conditions of late modernity. Crime victim groups seemed to have shaped their demands and strategies to "fit" their institutional environment (Skocpol 1992). The findings further suggest that in a populist political context with a high degree of democratization but intensive social polarization, crime victims were likely to be part of a retributive movement, leading to restrictive penal policies cast in the name of victim rights. In contrast, in a more deliberative political context with a high degree of democratization but well-developed social trust and norms of reciprocity, crime victims were part of a pragmatic resolution that sought to punish criminal offenders but also provide for the welfare of crime victims. In this case, traditional criminal justice schemes were intermixed with nonpenal policy responses oriented around crime victim support.

The findings of this study are based on a qualitative and comparative analysis of crime victim movements and their resulting penal outcomes in two similar but distinct cases in the United States, California and Washington State. …

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