Critical Criminology

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 9–23 | Cite as

Restoring the Victim: Emotional Reactions, Justice Beliefs, and Support for Reparation and Punishment



Psychological responses to criminal wrongdoing have primarily focused on the offender, particularly on how (and why) offender punishment satisfies people’s need for justice. However, the restoration of the victim presents another way in which the “psychological itch” that injustice creates can be addressed. In the present article, I discuss two lay theories of how crime victims can be restored: a belief that the harm caused to crime victims should be directly repaired (a restorative justice approach) versus a belief that victim harm should be addressed via the punishment of the offender (a retributive justice approach). These two lay theories are discussed with regard to their emotional and ideological determinants, as well as situational and chronic factors that can affect whether people adopt a reparative or punitive “justice mindset” in dealing with victim concerns (and crime in general).

Crime causes many harms, including direct material and psychological harm to the victim, as well as more indirect harms to the laws, institutions, and values of society. Despite the multiple harms caused by crime, the discussions of how to deal with crime and its aftermath tend to center on what should be done to the offender: including whether and to what extent he should be punished and whether he needs treatment for mental or substance abuse problems. This focus on the offender is understandable on a number of different levels, including societal concerns about safety and future offending (Cullen et al. 2000), and the feelings of outrage that the offender’s actions elicit (e.g., Carlsmith et al. 2002). This focus has been reflected in both justice practice and research. However, by focusing primarily on the offender, other considerations are neglected that could also be viewed as contributing to the achievement of justice.

This neglect has been most prominent with regard to the treatment of crime victims. Even though they are the ones who have been most directly harmed and wronged by the crimes, their concerns and needs receive little attention in the criminal justice system by design (as the state becomes the adversary against the offender). The procedures do not allow for victims to have a voice in their own justice proceedings, and the outcomes of these proceedings are evaluated with regard to offender and societal level concerns (e.g., recidivism). This neglect of crime victims has been receiving increasing attention (e.g., O’Hara 2005; Roberts 2009), which has elevated the interest in justice approaches that can more directly address victims’ needs and concerns. One such approach, restorative justice, has been at the forefront of this discussion. Restorative justice, rather than concentrating primarily on offender punishment as do standard approaches to criminal wrongdoing, has a reparative focus that allows for victim concerns to be addressed by the criminal justice system.

As one of the tenets of restorative justice is to put an emphasis on victims concerns when responding to crime, it is crucial to understand whether this type of approach fits into people’s conceptions of justice. The current article presents a theoretical discussion of lay people’s views of restorative, victim-centered approaches to crime, and their reactions to crime victims in general. I will first address how approaches like restorative justice provide the means to effectively address victim concerns following transgressions (and are able to do so better than traditional court-based procedures). I will then turn to which psychological factors influence whether people view the addressing of victim concerns as contributing to the overall achievement of justice, which factors (such as emotional responses and political ideology) determine how people react to crime victims, and possible differences between victims about how their concerns can best be addressed.

Restorative Justice and its Benefits for Victims

Restorative justice involves bringing together all of the stakeholders that have been affected by a crime (particularly the victim and offender) to determine what needs to be done to repair the harm that has been caused. Restorative justice procedures and outcomes are concerned with restoring the victim and the community, as well as reintegrating the offender into society (Bazemore 1998; Braithwaite 1989, 2002). Restorative goals are typically achieved through procedures that involve a face-to-face, facilitated meeting of the victim, the offender (who has admitted his guilt), and their supporters. Community members can also be present as representatives of community interests. During the facilitated meeting, offenders explain their actions and why they engaged in them. Victims then have a chance to explain how the crime harmed them, and the offenders have an opportunity to apologize for the harm they caused. Together, the conference participants work out an agreement for what the offender must do to repair the harm caused by the offense. These agreements usually involve such outcomes as an apology from the offender, monetary compensation to the victim, services that the offender does for the victim, and community service.

As compared to traditional court procedures that do not provide a direct role for victims (or a direct means of addressing their concerns), restorative justice places a priority on addressing victim concerns and needs, and restoring them as much as possible to where they were before the crime occurred. The central role that victims play in the justice proceedings, and the attention given to their concerns, likely underlies the now well-documented finding that the use of restorative justice practices improves outcomes for victims more than traditional court processes (Latimer et al. 2005; Sherman et al. 2005; Strang et al. 2006; Umbreit and Coates 1993). Victims report greater feelings of satisfaction and fairness, lesser feelings of fear and desire to seek revenge against the offender, and feeling better emotionally about their victimization, when they participate in restorative conferences. In addition, when restorative aims are realized (e.g., an apology is offered to the victim), victims report feeling more satisfied and feel more forgiveness toward the offender than when they are not (Dhami 2012). Although both victims and offenders have to choose to participate in these conferences (which could mean that a self-selection bias explains the improved outcomes of victims; see Menkel-Meadow 2007), the use of randomized controlled trials (and intention-to-treat analyses) amongst those who have agreed to participate provides evidence against the self-selection explanation being able to fully account for the victim satisfaction results (see Sherman and Strang 2009a, b).

In further support of the argument against the self-selection explanation, laboratory studies that randomly assign participants to different experimental conditions have found positive reactions toward restorative justice amongst people who have been victimized or who imagine themselves being victimized. Transgression victims prefer the use of restorative procedures to more punitive approaches when they share an identity with the offender and/or desire to establish consensus about the violated value (e.g., Wenzel et al. 2012; Wenzel et al. 2008, 2010). And, people have lessened negative emotional experiences and calmer physiological reactions with restorative, as compared to retributive, responses to imagined transgressions against them (Witvliet et al. 2008).

The theorizing and research on the ability of restorative justice to heal victims has contributed to the view of restorative justice as a particularly effective means of addressing victim concerns. There has been considerably less attention paid to whether this victim-centered approach corresponds to everyday people’s conception of justice, which is a glaring omission given the mixed evidence that restorative justice practices can effectively address offender-related concerns, such as recidivism (e.g., Latimer et al. 2005). The understanding and investigation of lay notions of justice is important not only from a theoretical perspective, but also given the implications it can have for voting behavior (Roberts and Stalans 2004), and the perceived legitimacy and respect for justice institutions (Robinson and Darley 1997; Tyler 2006). In the coming sections, I will discuss whether (1) individuals recognize the attention that restorative justice pays to victims as contributing to the overall achievement of justice in response to criminal offenses, and (2) people’s lay theories about how victim concerns can be addressed through both restorative and punitive means, and the implications that has for public support of restorative justice initiatives.

Can Victim Restoration Do Justice?

The focus on offender punishment in responding to criminal wrongdoing is not merely the result of historical artifact or accident. From a psychological perspective, people support the punishing of offenders because it is psychologically satisfying. People feel anger and outrage in response to both their own and others’ injustices, and the castigation of the offender through punishment provides a means of addressing these emotions (e.g., Batson et al. 2007; Carlsmith et al. 2002; Goldberg et al. 1999; Miller 2001). This experience of moral outrage underlies the punishments people assign for a particular crime, rather than concerns related to more utilitarian issues, such as likelihood of detection (for a review, see Carlsmith and Darley 2008). And, the punishment of wrongdoers activates a reward-sensitive neural area (the anterior dorsal striatum), indicating that people derive pleasure and satisfaction from punishing transgressors (de Quervain et al. 2004). The punishment of offenders for their crimes, therefore, is satisfying a psychological need to right the scales that the offenders’ transgressions have imbalanced (Heider 1958; Vidmar and Miller 1980).

The dominance of punitive, offender-focused responses to crime in society, along with the psychological satisfaction this type of response brings, raises the question of whether people will support a restorative notion of justice that is concerned with repairing the harm caused to the victim (and to the community in which the crime took place). Although people may have feelings of sympathy for the crime victim (particularly when considering a specific individual that has been harmed; Small and Lowenstein 2003), do approaches that directly address victim concerns “scratch the psychological itch” by doing justice?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors. The first factor has to do with availability of non-punitive options to respond to wrongdoing. One reason why punitive reactions to wrongdoing tend to dominate justice considerations is the lack of reparative options that are available to respond to transgressions. In most jurisdictions and research studies, only options that punish offenders are provided. When reparative options that focus on the victim are also on offer to research participants, there is evidence that people endorse the use of compensative and restorative measures, either on their own or in combination with punitive responses (Lotz et al. 2011; McGarrell and Sandys 1996).

When these options are available, both survey and experimental research have demonstrated that people support the use of reparative sanctions (e.g., restitution, community service) and restorative procedures for non-violent offenders in lieu of more punitive options (Cullen et al. 2000; Gromet and Darley 2006, 2009; van Prooijen 2010). Although restorative options are typically discussed as only having widespread support for offenses that are low in severity (e.g., petty theft), recent research has shown that people endorse restoration for serious offenses when it is coupled with punitive options. People prefer Life Without Parole (LWOP) to the death penalty when LWOP is coupled with restitution to the victim’s families (McGarrell and Sandys 1996), and prefer procedures that combine restorative conferences with prison sentence for serious crimes (e.g., armed robbery), rather than a prison sentence on its own (Gromet and Darley 2006). That is, although the material and psychological restoration of victims is not recognized as being able to achieve justice on its own for serious offenses, people continue to endorse the use of restorative procedures and outcomes as legitimate responses to serious criminal wrongdoing when coupled with punitive responses.

Although these findings show that people view restorative approaches as able to contribute to the achievement of justice, they also demonstrate that people require punishment to feel that justice has been satisfied for more serious crimes. However, are these results driven by people’s attention being naturally drawn to the offender when considering how to respond to crime? Are victim concerns less accessible (i.e., do not as easily come to mind; Kahneman 2003) than concerns about offender punishment? If people’s default response to a criminal act is to focus on the offender and his punishment, then it is likely that victim-based concerns may not receive the same attention in people’s responses, despite the fact that people recognize repairing the harm as a legitimate and worthy justice goal. It should follow that making people aware of the victim’s plight will elevate the importance of victim restoration, such that fulfilling this goal becomes part of a psychologically satisfying justice response.

In order to address this question, John Darley and I investigated whether bringing attention to the victim (versus the offender) would affect the resources people committed to satisfying victim restoration (Gromet and Darley 2009). Participants evaluated two serious crimes (armed robbery and attempted murder) and selected sanctions to assign (e.g., prison, restitution, community service). Following this initial baseline presentation, participants were presented with the same crimes again, but were instructed to focus either on the offender, the victim, or the community. Consistent with the “offender punishment as default” hypothesis, when participants focused on the offender, their sanction selection did not differ from their baseline selections, which prioritized punishment over restoration. However, when participants focused on the victim or the community, they selected more sanctions that would satisfy their respective concerns than they had initially (i.e., opting for more sanctions that would restore the victim or the community, respectively). Importantly, when thinking about the victim, participants selected as many restorative sanctions as they did punitive sanctions on average. Although punishment may be the default justice response, when attention is drawn to the victim, people also prioritize harm repair.

These findings suggest that making the victim salient increases the importance of victim restoration in people’s conceptualizations about what is needed to satisfy the call for justice for a given crime. But, to establish that victim restoration is viewed as directly contributing to the perception that justice has been achieved, it is necessary to demonstrate that the satisfaction of victim restoration leads to a reduction in the amount of offender punishment people think is required. That is, victim restoration and offender punishment should both be seen as contributing to the achievement of justice, such that repairing the harm caused to the victim should constitute some of what is needed to for justice to be done, thus lessening the amount of punishment needed for people to feel that justice has been fully accomplished.

Recent research has provided support for this contention. In particular, victims’ satisfaction with a restorative justice process affected the extent to which people then endorsed punishing the offender (Gromet et al., in press). Participants evaluated criminal offenses and victims’ reactions to an initial restorative justice conference. When people learned that victims felt satisfied (relative to dissatisfied) with restorative proceedings, this information attenuated the extent to which people thought offenders should be punished, regardless of crime seriousness or conflicting views of an outside observer. Critically, this relationship was explained by participants’ sense that when victims were satisfied, victims experienced more closure and offenders experienced more remorse (two restorative-based goals), which elevated participants’ feeling that justice had been achieved. When victim-related concerns are directly satisfied, the extent to which people rely on punitive measures (i.e., prison sentences) to achieve justice is lessened. In addition, there is also evidence that information about the victim (e.g., emotional harm caused to the victim, attractiveness of the victim) can increase the punishment the offender receives (Goodwin and Benforado 2011; Landy and Aronson 1969; Nadler and Rose 2002). These findings indicate that people have a multifaceted conception of justice that includes concerns related to both the offender and the victim, which are interrelated.

As these findings indicate that people think that addressing victim concerns constitutes one component of achieving justice, these results raise questions about a well-documented reaction to victims: belief in a just world (Lerner 1980). Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are confronted with the suffering of innocent others, they will derogate the victim (e.g., “He must have done something bad to deserve what happened to him.”) in order to deal with the threat that innocent victims pose to their belief that the world is a just place (for a review, see Hafer and Begue 2005). These findings appear to contradict the notion that drawing attention to crime victims will enhance the extent to which people endorse repairing the harm caused to victims. However, one less discussed aspect of a belief in a just world is that it can also lead to a desire to help the victim, when options exist to do so (Lerner 1980; Hafer and Begue 2005). That is, just as derogating the victim can help restore people’s belief that the world is just, providing aid and help to victims provides another pathway to restore this belief. Therefore, when options are available that allow victims to be helped, people can restore their sense of justice not by derogating the victim, but by providing ways to return them to where they were before their victimization occurred.

These findings illustrate that people’s conceptions of justice do not rely solely on offender punishment. The restoration of the victim also contributes to people feeling that justice has been done, although for serious crimes, this reparative notion may not be as immediate as a punitive one. Particularly when people have had their attention drawn to victim concerns, their conception of justice becomes more victim-oriented, and the addressing of victims’ needs reduces the extent to which people think offender punishment is required. Some of the psychological itch that injustices create can be addressed by repairing the harm caused to the victim. In the next section, I will take a more nuanced view of people’s beliefs surrounding the idea of victim restoration, and examine how different psychological factors can affect how people think that the harm to the victim can be repaired.

Differing Views on How Victims are Restored

The idea of victim restoration is typically associated, not surprisingly, with a restorative approach to dealing with wrongdoing (see Gromet and Darley 2009). However, there may be multiple ways in which people think that victims can feel better about their victimizations. One means to do this is with the aforementioned restorative justice approach, which focuses on repairing both the material and psychological harm caused to victims (e.g., Strang and Sherman 2003). This approach includes providing victims with opportunities to have a voice in their own justice proceedings, to reach an understanding with offenders about the harm they have caused, and to have justice outcomes that directly target the victim. As discussed previously, these approaches have been shown to increase victims’ feelings of satisfaction and perceptions of fairness of the justice process, as well as making them feel better about their victimization.

Although the restorative approach provides a direct pathway to dealing with victims needs, there is also likely to be at least one indirect pathway to making victims feel better about their victimization: the punishment of the offender. The retributive approach to addressing victim concerns is through making sure the offender receives his “just deserts” for the wrong he committed against the victim (e.g., Fletcher 1999; Garvey 2003). Victims should experience elevated feelings of status and power when their offender is punished (e.g., Miller 2001), as well as feeling that society cares about their welfare (e.g., Tyler et al. 1997). Indeed, victims of minor transgressions feel better about their status within their group when their transgressor is punished (Okimoto and Wenzel 2011). Importantly for the present argument, there is initial evidence that lay people view punitive sanctions (such as a prison sentence) as being able to restore victims (Gromet and Darley 2009). Although the punishment of the offender does not directly target the victim, it can still be seen as providing part of what victims need to move on from their victimization.

Whether people favor a restorative or retributive approach (or both) to dealing with victim concerns is likely to be determined by whether these approaches reflect their beliefs about how justice can be achieved. Although these beliefs can take the form of a chronic disposition that varies between people (see Okimoto et al., in press), they can also vary based on the situation in which people are making their assessments, such as the accessibility of victim concerns (Gromet and Darley 2009) or the salient symbolic meaning of the transgression (Wenzel et al. 2012). One likely contributor to these beliefs at both the individual difference and situational level is the emotional reactions that people have to crime victims (specifically, whether people feelings are dominated by sympathy or moral outrage).

Emotional Reactions to Crime Victims

The role of emotions in justice has received considerable attention from both the perspective of the victim (i.e., feelings of anger, sadness, fear, etc. that result from victimization; Orth and Weiland 2006) and the perspective of outside observers reacting to criminal violations that do not affect them directly (i.e., feelings of moral outrage; Carlsmith and Darley 2008). Emotional experiences have been described as integral to successful restorative justice procedures for both the offender and the victim (Arrigo and Williams 2003; Rossner 2011; Sherman 2003), and emotional reactions to crime (primarily anger and moral outrage) have been shown to underlie support for punitive and redistributive policies (Johnson 2009; Wakslak et al. 2007). Although the role of emotions in justice has been the subject of both theorizing and empirical investigations (see Hoffman 1990; Karstedt 2003; Wenzel et al. 2010), emotional reactions to crime victims (rather than the emotions of crime victims) has been relatively understudied, particularly outside of the domain of victim impact statements (for a review, see Nadler and Rose 2002).

Based on previous research on people’s reactions to injustice, there are likely to be two key emotional reactions that people have to victims of crime: sympathy for the victim and moral outrage toward the offender. That is, when people have their attention drawn to the harm that has been caused to crime victims (rather than the wrong the crime caused by violating the laws of society), they can experience elevated feelings of sympathy toward the victim for what they have had to endure, and/or they can experience elevated feelings of moral outrage toward the offender for the harm he caused to another person. Although moral outrage has been primarily discussed as a reaction to the moral wrong of the crime (Carlsmith and Darley 2008), it can also be understood as a reaction to victim harm (see Montada and Schneider 1989; Paternoster and Deise 2011). For sympathy, this emotional experience has been shown to be part of observers’ reactions to individuals in need of aid (for a review, see Lowenstein and Small 2007), and can affect the concrete responses people endorse to dealing with injustice (Nadler and Rose 2002; Paternoster and Deise 2011; Small et al. 2007). These emotional reactions are directed toward different targets, as moral outrage focuses on the offender (as the cause of the victim’s suffering), whereas sympathy focuses directly on the victim.

These emotional reactions are likely to underlie (or at least be associated with) beliefs about how victims can best be restored (i.e., whether people adopt a restorative or retributive mindset; see Wenzel et al. 2008). Returning to the notion of a “psychological itch,” people should support approaches to dealing with crime victims that best alleviate the emotions they are experiencing (see Forgas 2008). If people’s emotional reactions to crime victims are dominated by feelings of sympathy, then a restorative approach that focuses on repairing the harm caused to victims is likely to best fit with their current justice mindset, particularly given the relative neglect of victims in retributive notions of justice (e.g., Barton 1999). However, if people feel mostly moral outrage in response to the harm caused to crime victims, then this feeling is likely to lead people toward a retributive approach that focuses on punishing the offender for the harm caused to the victim. In this case, punitive responses are likely to dominate restorative ones, as they are better able to satisfy the experience of moral outrage in reaction to victim harm through imposing suffering on the offender.1

People can experience both moral outrage and sympathy in reaction to crime victims, and there are a number of situational variables that can determine which emotional response predominates people’s reactions. I will consider three features of the victim and/or the offender that can affect these judgments: closeness to the victim, the moral character of either the victim or the offender, and the emotional experiences of the victims. Previous research has demonstrated that people feel more sympathy toward those who they view as similar to them or who are proximally close (see Lowenstein and Small 2007), and that when people feel an “emotional proximity” to the victim, they are more in favor of victim compensation (van Prooijen 2010). These findings indicate that closeness to crime victims can increase feelings of sympathy, which leads to support for more victim-oriented justice responses. However, closeness to victims has also been shown to decrease sympathetic reactions, such as when people think it is likely that they will experience a similar victimization (Gold et al. 1977). Thus, closeness to the victim may only increase feelings of sympathy when observers do not feel personally threatened by the crime in question, as this threat can activate a more punitive mindset (Tetlock et al. 2007). Of course, a close relationship to the offender could also affect these judgments, either through decreased feelings of moral outrage to protect the offender or increased feelings to distance the offender from the in-group (Eidelman et al. 2006).

Information about the moral character of the offender or victim should also affect people’s emotional reactions to crime victims. The moral outrage that people experience in reaction to victim harm should increase when the victim is viewed as a particularly good person and/or the offender is seen as a bad person (see Goodwin and Benforado 2011). Consistent with this notion, Greene et al. (1998) demonstrated that a murder was viewed as more severe when the victims were more respectable. And, people’s view of the offender’s and the victim’s character is likely to have an inverse relationship with one another (see Paternoster and Deise 2011), such that the more the victim is seen as a bad person, the less the offender is (consistent with a just world belief a victim with a bad character was deserving of being victimized; Lerner 1980). Sympathy for the victim should also increase in the presence of a victim with a good moral character, and decrease when the victim is not a desirable person (or, at the extreme, is seen as less than human; Harris and Fiske 2006).

Finally, the emotional experiences of the victims themselves may also color people’s own emotional responses to victims. Victims may have varied emotional reactions to transgressions that have been committed against them, including feelings of anger and sadness (see Okimoto et al. 2009). If victims express anger about their victimization, their anger is likely to translate into elevated feelings of moral outrage on behalf of observers, as people confer status to those who express anger (Tiedens 2001), and offender punishment provides a way of restoring the status of the victim (Miller 2001; Wenzel et al. 2008). But, if victims express feelings of sadness and loss about their victimization, their emotional experience should translate into observers’ greater feelings of sympathy for the victim (Nadler and Rose 2002; Small and Verrochi 2009). In support of this contention, Nadler and Rose demonstrated that when victims described themselves as feeling “afraid, vulnerable, and depressed” (p. 433), people reported higher levels of sympathy than when victims described themselves as angry or no emotional information was provided. Of course, the way in which people react to the emotional expressions of victims can be moderated by a number of factors, including whether the victim is considered a member of the responder’s in-group or out-group (e.g., Cuddy et al. 2007).

Beyond these features that are connected to victims and offenders, factors that are wholly unrelated to the crime in question can also affect whether people primarily feel moral outrage or sympathy in response to crime victims. For instance, if people have recently experienced either emotion in an unrelated domain, these feelings are likely to carryover to their reactions to crime victims, due to people being either in a reparative (restorative) or punitive (retributive) mindset (e.g., Condon and DeSteno 2011; Goldberg et al. 1999). In sum, the emotions that people feel in response to crime victims (and the justice beliefs associated with these emotions) can be situationally determined, which leads people to endorsing different strategies for how to address victim concerns.

The Role of Political Ideology

The differing beliefs and emotions that can lead to divergent reactions to crime victims may be affected by situational factors, but they are also likely to be part of people’s stable outlooks or worldviews. That is, whereas some people will consistently react to victims with feelings of sympathy and a belief that repairing the harm will provide the best way to make the victim feel better about what happened to them (a restorative justice approach), others will respond to victims with feelings of moral outrage about the harm caused to them and a belief that pursuing the punishment of the offender is the best means to restore victims (a retributive justice approach). The individual difference of political ideology may best capture these differing notions of how victim concerns should be addressed.

There is a rich literature documenting differences in how liberals and conservatives respond to offenders. Numerous studies have demonstrated that conservatives endorse a more punitive response to wrongdoing than liberals, who are more in favor of a rehabilitative approach than conservatives (Carroll et al. 1987; Jost et al. 2003; Skitka et al. 2002). Conservatives are more supportive of tough law and order tactics for dealing with crime, such as the death penalty (Carroll et al. 1987; Jost et al. 2003). This ideological difference is driven by conservatives being more likely to make attributions to the offender’s person or character (rather than the offender’s situation or circumstances) as the cause of crime (Carroll et al. 1987; Morgan et al. 2010; Skitka et al. 2002).

There has been considerably less attention paid to ideological differences with regard to reactions to crime victims. A few studies have demonstrated that conservatives are both more likely to blame crime victims for their victimization and to be less sympathetic toward victims than their liberal counterparts (Lambert and Raichle 2000; Skitka et al. 2002; Williams 1984). An important distinction to make here is how people react to individual victims of crime as compared to (groups of) people who are suffering due to poverty, disease, or other non-crime related circumstances. The research on reactions to the disadvantaged has demonstrated that conservatives react negatively to people who are in need of aid, as they view them as responsible for their own bad outcomes (e.g., Skitka and Tetlock 1993).

The present focus is on people’s reactions to victims of criminal acts, which beyond attributions of responsibility for rape (e.g., Lambert and Raichle 2000), has not been well studied. As crime victims are individuals who have had their rights violated by offenders, the reactions to crime victims are likely to differ substantially from those toward disadvantaged groups. In particular, rather than conservatives discounting the legitimacy of helping disadvantaged victims as compared to liberals, both liberals and conservatives should support restoring crime victims. Indeed, conservative support for restorative justice initiatives has been described as due to its ability to do justice for victims (e.g., Levrant et al. 1999). However, liberals and conservatives should differ in how they believe that crime victims can be restored.

As conservatives chronically experience higher levels of moral outrage than liberals do, and are more supportive of punitive responses toward offenders (e.g., Jost et al. 2003; Tetlock et al. 2007), their reactions to crime victims are also likely to activate this retributive mindset. When confronted with the harm caused to victims, conservatives should experience increased levels of moral outrage at offenders for causing this harm, which will reinforce the desire for punitive responses to deal with crime. That is, conservatives should believe that the punishment of offenders would restore crime victims. For liberals, as they are more likely to report feelings of sympathy for crime victims (Williams 1984) and are more supportive of reparative approaches in general than conservatives (e.g., Carroll et al. 1987), they should react to crime victims with a restorative mindset. When liberals have their attention drawn to victim harm, they should feel more sympathy for victims and desire to see the repair of the harm that victims have endured. Liberals should believe that restoration of the crime victim is best be achieved by focusing on the material and psychological harm that has been caused to victims.

There is initial evidence in support of these contentions. When people are presented with information about how a person has been victimized (and the aftermath of the victimization), there are ideological differences in people’s emotional reactions to this information and beliefs about what will make victims feel better. Conservatives express more moral outrage than liberals do to learning of victim harm, whereas liberals feel more sympathy than outrage (either at the individual or aggregate level; Gromet 2011; Gromet and Darley 2011). These ideological differences were also reflected in people’s beliefs about whether restorative or retributive actions would make the victim feel better. Whereas liberals think that victims will feel better about their victimization if restorative processes are used rather than punitive ones, conservatives do not view restorative procedures as being better able to make victims feel better than punitive approaches (Gromet and Darley 2011).

These divergent emotional experiences to victim harm, and beliefs about how to best respond to needs of crime victims, are reflected in people’s endorsement of concrete responses to criminal wrongdoing. For instance, when people have little opportunity to modify their intuitive reactions to wrongdoing (i.e., under instances of cognitive load), liberals and conservatives react differently to having their attention drawn to crime victims (Gromet and Darley 2011). Liberals are more satisfied by the inclusion of a restorative conference for high severity offenses than conservatives, who are more satisfied by the exclusive use of punishment in response to the crime. Furthermore, when people consider whether they would favor reducing the extent to which offenders could be punished by the justice system (i.e., the length of a prison sentence) in order to provide restorative options to victims (i.e., restitution, an opportunity to receive an apology from their offender), knowledge of victim neglect leads liberals to endorse this reduction in punitiveness for victim reparation, whereas it does not affect conservatives’ judgments (Gromet 2011). These findings suggest that attention to crime victims (and their concerns) leads liberals to endorse providing closure for victims through restoration, whereas it leads conservatives to pursue closure for victims through the punishment of the offender.

These initial findings provide evidence for the contention that there are two distinct ways in which people believe that victim concerns can be addressed: through either repairing the harm caused to the victim (a restorative approach) or through punishing the offender for the harm he has caused the victim (a retributive approach). These beliefs are associated with liberal and conservative political ideologies, respectively, and are also manifested in people’s emotional reactions to crime victims. Of course, it is possible (and likely) that people believe that both victim reparation and offender punishment will restore victims, and that people feel both moral outrage and sympathy in reaction to learning about crime victims (rather than only one or the other). That is, punitive and reparative justice mindsets are not by definition in conflict with one another. People can simultaneously endorse both conceptions of justice and ideally like to see both achieved (see Gromet 2009; Robbennolt et al. 2003). Therefore, although liberals and conservatives do have differing prioritizations of reparative and punitive justice notions, they can recognize both of these notions as contributing to the achievement of justice (Gromet and Darley 2011; Tetlock et al. 2007).

What About Victims Themselves?

My argument thus far has focused on what sorts of responses observers believe will restore crime victims. Another important question is whether victim themselves differ in their emotional responses to victimization and beliefs about what types of actions will make them feel better. As discussed throughout this article, one way to parse the question of what victims want is whether, in general, victims prefer a reparative or punitive approach to dealing with the crimes committed against them. Do victims primarily want their needs directly addressed through victim-centric reparative options, or are they primarily concerned with seeing their offenders punished for what they have done to them? Surveys of crime victims have predominantly shown that central issues to crime victims include procedural considerations (such as having a voice or being able to participate in the justice process) and having the harm that has been caused to them recognized and addressed (for reviews, see Strang 2002; Strang and Sherman 2003). However, feelings of anger and a desire for retaliation have also been shown to be part of the victimization experience (see Orth 2003; Orth and Weiland 2006). Therefore, crime victims may desire both reparative and punitive approaches to dealing with their crimes.

Determinations of which approach dominates for victims themselves are likely to be influenced by many of the situational and individual differences discussed in the previous sections. For instance, recent experimental research has shown that victims differ from each other with regard to whether they prefer punitive or reparative procedures and outcomes (Okimoto et al., in press). Some people have a preference for the punishment of the offender (addressing status and power concerns) and thus may be more likely to respond to their own victimization primarily with anger, whereas others have a preference for reaching an understanding with the offender (addressing concerns over value consensus) and thus may be more likely to respond to victimization with feelings of sadness and disappointment.

One pressing question about what victims desire to be done in response to wrongdoing is whether victims know what sorts of actions will in fact benefit them and allow them to move on from their victimization. People tend to make errors in affective forecasting (i.e., predictions about how one will feel in the future based on an event that has happened to them), such as when people overestimate how badly they will feel following negative events like losing their job or the ending of a romantic relationship (for a review, see Wilson and Gilbert 2003). Given that becoming a victim of crime is a severe negative event in one’s life, it may follow that people are unable to predict which response (reparative or punitive) will best fit their needs. For example, victims may think that seeing their offender punished will address their needs, but they may find that their feelings of sadness and disappointment cannot be resolved through punishment.

Observers may also make affective forecasting errors about the victims they are considering. Blumenthal (2005) has argued that people are likely to make similar errors in predicting what their emotions will be in the future as they will with predicting the emotions of others, given people’s tendency to extrapolate from their own views to those of others (false consensus; Ross et al. 1977). In particular, people who are close to victims may feel particularly outraged by the harm that has been caused to them, and focus primarily on the punitive measures the offender receives, rather than dealing with more reparative-based concerns that victims are also likely to have. Indeed, part of the controversy over the use of victim impact statements in capital trials (in which the actual victim is no longer alive) is that the anger and outrage of victims’ family members and friends will bias juries toward a death penalty verdict (e.g., Greene et al. 1998). Research is needed to explore possible affective forecasting errors on the part of both victims themselves and third party observers on behalf of victims, and whether these errors are consistent between these two perspectives, or differ from each other in systematic ways.


When it comes to the task of doing justice in the face of criminal wrongdoing, much of the attention has been given to what should happen to offenders and the ways in which punishment satisfies the psychological itch experienced by third party observers. In this article, I have discussed another way that this psychological itch can be satisfied: by using reparative approaches to wrongdoing that are more focused on victim concerns than punitive, offender-based options. As restorative justice options are viewed as contributing to the overall achievement of justice (e.g., Gromet et al., in press), it appears that approaches that prioritize addressing victim concerns are able to help in re-balancing the scales following a transgression.

However, lay theories about which sorts of actions in fact restore victims may not always be reparative in nature. People’s beliefs and emotional reactions to crime victims, whether it be situationally or chronically determined, are likely to lead the adoption of particular justice mindsets. The experience of moral outrage should underlie a belief that the punishment of the offender will restore the victim (consistent with a conservative worldview), whereas the experience of sympathy should contribute to the belief that directly addressing victim concerns is the best avenue to pursue (consistent with a liberal worldview). The “activation” of a reparative or restorative mindset had been understudied in comparison to a punitive or retributive one (see Tetlock et al. 2007). More research is needed to understand what factors lead to the adoption of a reparative justice mindset, and how it might cooperate or conflict with desires for punitive measures.

Satisfying justice, in the eyes of either victims themselves or third party observers, is a complex task. People are likely to have a number of goals that they would like to see addressed in response to criminal wrongdoing (e.g., Gromet and Darley 2009; Orth 2003; Robbennolt et al. 2003). Features of the context in which people are evaluating crimes, as well as the worldviews they bring to these contexts, are likely to contribute to whether they endorse efforts being concentrated on restorative or retributive approaches to dealing with victim harm (or crime in general). By focusing both research and practical attention on the plight of victims, we can begin to gain a better understanding of how people believe that victims can be restored and how the restoration of victims contributes to the overall achievement of justice for victims and observers alike.


  1. 1.

    It is important to note here that although sympathy for the victim has been shown to increase punitiveness toward the offender (e.g., Nadler and Rose 2002; Paternoster and Deise 2011), these results were found in contexts in which only a punitive option was available (i.e., a prison sentence, the death penalty). It is likely that when people do not have a reparative option, their increased sympathy would translate into increasing the option that is available to them (see McGarrell and Sandys 1996).


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Wharton SchoolUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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