‘Closure’ and Emotion in the Criminal Courtroom

Closure in the Criminal Courtroom: The Birth and Strange Career of an Emotion by Susan A. Bandes :: SSRN

Over the last thirty years, the notion that the criminal justice system can help provide closure for victims and their families has gained remarkable traction, both in popular discourse and in the legal arena. Closure is offered—often successfully—as an argument for imposing death sentences, trimming procedural protections, permitting victim impact statements, truncating appeals, denying clemency petitions, speeding up executions, televising executions, and granting the bereaved access to the execution chamber. More broadly, it has transformed the debate about the legitimacy of the capital system—recasting the imposition of the death penalty from a retributive act to an act of compassion for bereaved families. Closure is a puzzle. Its parameters are fuzzy, its dynamics are murky, and its origins seem to have more to do with law and politics than with psychology. There is an argument to be made that closure isn’t an emotion at all, but rather a set of legal aspirations for the conduct of criminal proceedings. Yet closure has increasingly come to be viewed as an emotional state—and one that the criminal justice system is capable of helping victims and survivors attain. It has become a prime example of the power of the criminal justice system to shape emotional expectations. This chapter discusses the evolution of closure as a legal concept, the definitional ambiguities surrounding the term, and the institutional consequences of these ambiguities for the criminal justice system. It examines the symbiotic relationship between closure and the criminal justice system, arguing that the criminal justice system has played a powerful role in reshaping the emotional expectations of victims and their families. The chapter then reviews the empirical literature on closure and criminal justice. Finally, it identifies directions for further study.