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Review of "Mercy: A Restorative Philosophy"

by Roger Statham

David Cornwell is grappling with an important issue in Mercy: A Restorative Philosophy and illuminates his subject well. After a lifetime working in criminal justice he has a better understanding than most of the way it works and of its impact on the individual. It is not difficult to imagine given his considerable experience that he has begun to distil the essence of mercy and in doing so he has given free reign to his intellect as he has accessed the sources available to him. The result is that he has produced a comprehensive and closely argued book.

From the outset he acknowledges that lengthy preoccupations in the fields of ethics and moral philosophy have produced opacity with the many definitions of mercy. I suppose that is the problem in a search for the truth. There is a sense that limitations of imagination and the almost inevitable need for pragmatism and compromise create a dynamic that is unsatisfactory.

David Cornwell however is not discouraged and has diligently pursued his subject from Lockerbie to victims and restorative justice. Along the way he has reviewed the literature thoroughly and has put the text together in an accessible way that helps the reader and will be invaluable to the student. A central tenet is that mercy is confused with mitigation.

He reminds us that state control of criminal justice should leave us uneasy and that there are those out there who do not believe in mercy. Helpfully we are taken carefully through all the arguments and theories in a cogent way and ultimately pointed towards a position that challenges present punitive hegemony.

The juxtaposition of the political and philosophical are threads in this book and one is left with the sense of David Cornwell's frustration that criminal justice policy is neither cogent nor fair. If his book and the issues were better and more widely understood we might move things on.

However there is very little understanding of the philosophy or purpose of criminal justice in wider society. There is little comprehension either that criminal justice is largely a way of managing inequality. Fathoming these are fundamental to any civilised policy making. The deficiencies of the present system are laid bare here but the world will remain ignorant unless they read books like Mercy: A Restorative Philosophy.

The dynamics that moved criminal justice policy from the rehabilitative ideals of the sixties were to do with political manipulation by those who were elected. We are all diminished by the ignorance of the population to the issues so carefully explored here.

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