“The Ethical Journey from Punitive to Unitive Justice”

Common phrases, like “the punishment must fit the crime,” “I want to get even,” or “an eye for an eye” are actually describing proportional revenge, the moral principle that underpins the punitive western model of justice. Answering harm with more harm is deemed moral, so long as the harm you do is proportional to the harm done to you. Two moral standards are required for proportional revenge to work, one that says the harm done by us, the “good” people, is moral, while condemning the harm done by those whom we have deemed “evil” or “immoral” – even when both are doing essentially the same thing. It is our system of punitive justice that has brought about mass incarceration in the U.S. – one out of every 100 adults in the US in presently incarcerated, and for minorities the rate is much higher. But we have another choice: unitive justice.

Unitive justice is based on the moral principle of loving-kindness and it applies equally to everyone. Whatever the circumstances, harm to another is not condoned as moral. The power of unitive justice lies in this internal moral consistency, a power demonstrated in the movements led by Gandhi, King and Mandela. Safety is achieved, not by physical force, but by creating a system owned by the community in which harm is not condoned. Worldwide, the punitive model of justice is being supplanted by new ways of implementing justice. This discussion will consider the ethical differences between punitive and unitive justice, and the ways in which unitive justice is presently being implemented as an answer to the broken punitive system, the mass incarceration that now pervades the U.S. criminal system, and the school-to-prison pipeline that has resulted from the policy of “zero tolerance”. We can do better!

Sylvia Clute, Program Coordinator for the Alliance for Unitive Justice, is a former trial attorney. For over twenty-five years she has been researching and developing “unitive justice” as a parallel model of justice and a structure for community organization. While unitive justice has ancient roots (loving-kindness, the Golden Rule, non-violence), Sylvia teaches how it may be adapted to today’s culture and needs. Recently, she spent two years creating and implementing a restorative justice program based on unitive justice principles at a Richmond, Va. high school, and is now implementing the program in a middle school. She writes and lectures on unitive justice and has authored two books, Beyond Vengeance, Beyond Duality: A Call for a Compassionate Revolution and the novel, Destiny Unveiled. She holds graduate degrees from Harvard Kennedy School of Government (MPA), Boston University School of Law (JD) and the Univ. of California at Berkeley (MPA). A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, she was co-founder and Chair of the Board.

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