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Review: Restorative Justice-Theories and Practices of Moral Imagination

Jun 19, 2013

by Eric Assur

LFB Scholarly Publishing, El Paso,  2012, Amy Levad (author)        Hardback   300 pages

The title alone should draw in the curious criminal justice reader. Just what is Moral Imagination and how is it related to North American justice, philosophy and practice?  Amy Levad, clearly a proponent of a better way of doing justice, takes readers on a journey through philosophy and criminal justice practice. In what can readily be found ‘on line’ as her doctoral dissertation for the Emory University Religion, Ethics, and Society department, Levad provides both an overview of  criminal justice and restorative justice (RJ) practices and a primer on Nicomachean Ethics and other works by Aristotle. Five unnamed counties in Colorado with RJ programs are the target for a research segment of the book. The book, a bit heavy on the philosophy, serves as a well thought out support of the restorative justice field by a self described Christian social ethicist. Religion is never the focus of the book, but some faith groups are credited for their seminal RJ projects and their ongoing support of a justice which cares for victims and seeks, when appropriate, restoration of relationships over more punitive justice modes.

The journey starts with a 32 page introduction which proclaims that criminal justice is in a state of dysfunction or crisis. No one disputes that our nation incarcerates too many and often mindlessly follows sentencing guidelines more than common sense. The Rockefeller era like sentencing mandates and a zero tolerance mentality is condemned with the firm claim that ‘fixing the harm’ RJ is far better that what has been N. American criminal and juvenile  justice in the past half century. Levad concludes that RJ offers “space for vivid and expansive moral imagining that can foster justice as equity in order to respond to the crisis in our criminal justice / juvenile justice systems.” She pulls some of the moral imagination verbiage from the 2005 work by former Eastern Mennonite University professor (and Howard Zehr colleague) John Paul Lederach. The application of moral imagination allows judges, lawyers, probation staff and others to ‘repair the harm’ by seeing crime and conflict as a situation where  those effected by  crimes (victims and the community)  can be best served by the application of the emotion, imagination and perception lacking in what she refers to as the current “nail em - and -jail em” system.

Levad does a good job in sharing the characteristics of the rehabilitative, the retributive, and restorative models of justice delivery. The chart comparing these three R’s (retribution, rehabilitation, restoration) is in and of itself worth study, memorizing and sharing. The majority of the book is a well annotated overview of past and future promise in a narrow field or the much larger RJ, mediation and conflict resolution arena. She offers points of caution where appropriate in a segment on the dangerous uses of restorative justice. This author, now an assistant professor with the St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, uses John Braithwaite’s 2002 pyramid of restorative justice to show the needed concerns for public safety and the balance between incapacitation and restoration and rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, footnotes appear in a fashion that interrupts smooth reading. Some pages carry three or four  text lines and fifty lines of footnote or commentary best saved for the dissertation reader and omitted for the book version of this RJ contribution. This worthwhile contribution to the literature could have been published as a two hundred rather than a three hundred page book. The reader is informed and encouraged by the notion that we can do better to repair the harm caused by crime and delinquency with more application of ‘ethical discernment’ and ‘moral imagination.’ Despite the small sample size, she makes and supports her ‘qualified hope for a kinder, gentler, and more individualized twenty-first century justice system’ in an interesting fashion.

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