Critics take the unclear status of restorative justice practices, along with their vagueness in meaning and purpose, as a clear invitation to a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of these practices. Their supporters consider the experiment of restorative justice as a platform for reforming penal institutions and for rethinking the legitimacy of orthodox legal reasoning. Within the framework of a ‘rechtsstaat’, a democratic state governed by fundamental rights and by the rule of law, both issues of legitimacy lead not only to reflection on concepts such as restoration, punishment, or on such notions as harm and wrong. Questioning the legitimacy both of restorative justice practices and of the prevailing penal system also inevitably involves some reflection on, and articulation of, the underlying values and normative aspirations of such a democratic constitutional state. What are these values and how can they be given appropriate expression in the leading concepts and principles of the criminal law? To what extent are fundamental rights and principles of the rule of law sufficiently reflected in the practices of restorative justice? How are these practices to be related to the criminal justice system according to the normative aspirations of a democratic constitutional state? To what degree can current penal practices be made continuous with these aspirations?
These fundamental questions formed the intellectual framework for the 10th Aquinas Conference on ‘Restorative Justice, Punishment and the Morality of Law’, at which conference the larger part of the papers published in this volume were presented. Consistent with the structure of the conference, this collection of essays is organised into three parts, each focussing on one central topic and containing a lead essay and corresponding replies. The first part offers critical scrutiny of one of the cornerstones of a criminal justice system governed by the rule of law, namely the principle of legality. Efforts are made to empower this principle through reflection on its underlying values and aspirations, and this in order to meet some of the legitimate ideals and concerns of restorative justice. These efforts are subsequently assessed from both sociological and philosophical perspectives. In the second part, attention is drawn to the legitimacy of restorative justice practices. Here, the normative intuitions of a democratic constitutional state serve either as a critical framework to assess these practices, or, more optimistically, as ideals to whose realisation restorative justice is supposed to make a valuable contribution. And, finally, in the third part, reflection on the value of restorative justice brings us to a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of punishment and penal practices. Central to the discussion is whether it is possible to interpret and normatively reconstruct the idea and practice of punishment so as to make them compatible with, and even continuous with, the underlying values of a democratic constitutional state.
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