Western retributive justice is barbaric. When a human breaks the laws of its civilization, retributive justice posits that that human should be given a punishment proportional to their crime. In reality this manifests as an arbitrary punishment created ad hoc with no universal standard for what constitutes proper retribution. The arbitrary retributive constructs of one civilization may be entirely different from the arbitrary retributive constructs of another; one person’s forty lashes is another person’s $40 fine. This is not justice, this is arbitrary retribution reflecting popular local cultural constructs. Though temporally democratically popular, like slavery and war, this is an outmoded concept.
In addition to the arbitrary nature of retributive punishment, the idea that a society benefits from further traumatizing individual members who’ve transgressed is based on a faulty understanding of psychology and neurology. Individual human consciousness is heavily impacted by its environment, and definitively claiming humans have sole propriety over personal physical actions is tenuous. All actions are influenced by environmental chemicals, social inputs, and whatever neurological interpretation of reality the individual perceives at any given time. To believe justice is served by punishing a human for how their brain has been impacted genetically and socially is both barbaric and self-defeating.
Society is not better served when humans are traumatized and then stigmatized for their trauma. This practice perpetuates destructive cycles that keep large numbers of human brains in biological survival mode. Fueled by exacerbating chemicals like caffeine, opioids, sugar, dopamine, adrenaline, and alcohol (among many others), human populations absorb trauma, do not adequately address the trauma’s psychological impact, and then passively watch trauma transform and manifest itself in other ways, often as depression or a neurotic expression of unaddressed rage. This process can occur both individually and collectively, and the two are inextricably linked, creating cycles and new constructs based in trauma.
The most obvious example is our conception of safety and national security after 9/11. Our collective trauma manifested itself in bombings, invasions, and rage all over the world, and even caused us to declare a war on being afraid. This trauma is so banal that most citizens have no conception of the impact their civilization’s rage has had on the rest of the world. But personal ignorance of the full extent of inflicted trauma doesn’t mean the effect of that trauma is lessened. Trauma, defined as an expansive sliding scale of negative outcomes, is concentrated emotional energy and cannot be destroyed, only transformed.
The environment created through external actions is directly related to how an individual brain perceives its external environment. Create a trauma-saturated environment and the brain will perceive and absorb trauma, create a happiness-saturated environment and the brain will perceive and absorb happiness. The creators of trauma expose themselves to a trauma-saturated environment of their own making (as far as anything they do is independent and not simply repeating the cycles they learned), then bring absorbed trauma home to their families and friends where, unaddressed, it usually expresses itself through depression or rage. Retribution is not justice, it’s rage hijacking human rationality to construct a complex and opaque system that codifies its own goals. Don’t underestimate unpruned human anger, especially your own.
In the specific barbarism of this event, a child was traumatized through the horrifying American foster system, then she was impregnated. Then she birthed another child at 15, and finally she killed that child 19 months later. The psychologists (there is a segment of the psychology profession that specializes in judging sanity, according to US law, for money) deemed that despite the context, this human understood the basic functions of the legal bureaucracy, therefore, as experts, they consented to punishing her using that legal bureaucracy. After a lifetime of trauma, did this person’s consciousness have real control over her actions, or was her self under the sway of unaddressed neurosis? Does it particularly matter? Another traumatized person is most likely going into the US prison system, in this case because she stabbed her own baby five times.
Restorative justice sees this case in a different light. Rather than believe the best solution to trauma is more trauma, restorative justice, at least the version I believe in, seeks to find the most beneficial solution for both the community and the individual human. How? By identifying sources of trauma, creating systemic infrastructure specifically focused on addressing those sources, and deliberately intervening in order to interrupt cycles. A human being who creates trauma is not a monster, but rather a victim themselves who should be helped and understood.
In practice, a system of restorative justice would support thousands of panels of diverse individuals whose entire job is discussing the most beneficial solutions on an individual basis. Though arbitrary and dependent on any number of human variables, this system returns the humanity to justice. Rather than prisons, individuals a panel deems traumatized enough to justify temporary separation from society are sent to resocialization centers, where they are helped through their neurosis and given resources to develop skills and plenty of creative outlets to enhance their imagination and happiness. Amalgamations of this system already work in plenty of civilizations, but certainly not the United States.
Due to the mental state of large portions of the US population, true restorative justice would most likely not work. This is interesting to note and speaks to the high incidence of childhood trauma and lack of mental health infrastructure within the US. I define sanity as being mindful of and in balance with personal emotions, individuated from formative authority figures and constructs, confident in a personal ability to change the self in a chosen direction, and not desirous of negative outcomes for other beings. Unfortunately ideas that rely on sane humans to help other humans become saner don’t work in a society with a scarcity of sane humans.