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Satisfying the Urge to Punish: Exploring Attitudes Towards Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Incarceration


Decades of research have documented America’s reliance on mass incarceration and called for an overhaul of sentencing and penal policy to address the failures of our current criminal justice system. This dissertation claims that restorative justice is a viable alternative to incarceration that can both respond to some of these critiques and meet the public demand for justice. A series of studies using multiple methods were conducted in order to explore public attitudes regarding restorative justice and identify the circumstances under which the public would be more willing to endorse restorative justice over custodial sanctions. An on-line experiment with 189 participants examined the impact that social historical background information and race of the criminal perpetrator had on sentence choice, empathy, and criminal justice attitude measures. A second on-line experiment with 253 participants used sentence outcome as an independent variable and examined its impact on justice satisfaction, empathy, and criminal justice attitude measures. Both experimental studies demonstrated that social historical information had a powerful effect—participants who were provided with social historical information about the criminal perpetrator were more likely to choose a restorative justice outcome, were more satisfied with that outcome, felt more empathetic towards the criminal perpetrator, and had higher external attributions for crime. In a separate, related study, five focus groups were conducted (with 29 total participants) to explore whether lay persons regarded restorative justice as a fair criminal justice outcome, what sources of resistance might impede its future implementation, and what strategies might be devised to build support for this transformative reform. Qualitative analyses of the focus group discussions highlighted persistent psychological barriers to the use of restorative justice practices and provided insights into how those barriers might be overcome. Surprisingly, across all three studies, and contrary to much prior research on criminal sentencing, the race of the criminal perpetrator did not appear to affect the results. The lack of a race effect in this context can and should be explored in future studies. Overall, the findings from this research represent important social psychological contributions to the study of punishment, criminal justice policy, and meaningful penal reform.

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