True Justice, Pt II

In my last post I talked about how belief in the value of punishment is endemic in our society, particularly our system of Justice. And, just as I believe punishment as a tool of discipline works against the best interests of children, I also believe it is a poor tool for ensuring peace to society at large. Since most of us grew up immersed in the paradigm of punishment, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the alternative. If you can’t punish (your child, a criminal) then what DO you do?

I said I would give some real-world examples, so here is one: I read an article a while back in our local newspaper about a woman whose husband was beaten to death when he went to a neighbour’s home to complain about the noise from their house party. She went through a process whereby she met with, and developed a relationship with (and no, I don’t mean that kind of relationship), her husband’s killer.

Keep in mind this wasn’t a serial murderer, just a man who found himself immersed in a set of circumstances that led to him killing another man. In this case, I think any one of us could have been that killer. We humans all have the capacity to kill and be violent, and I think the fact that most of us don’t is only because we don’t find ourselves in just the right combination of circumstances as to make that a possibility for us.

Anyways, together the victim and her killer went through a process called Restorative Justice. You can learn more about it by visiting the Centre for Restorative Justice website.

In short: “ Restorative justice is a philosophy that views harm and crime as violations of people and relationships. It is a holistic process that addresses the repercussions and obligations created by harm, with a view to putting things as right as possible. Restorative justice is best practiced when guided by restorative values and principles and when those most affected are both the focus and the directors.”

The italics are mine. In other words, both the criminal and the victim are brought together to actively participate in “putting things right”. There is not a power imbalance between the two, rather they are seen as equally important and valued players in a process that brings empowerment to the whole community.

From their site: “ When compared with our current models of punishment, whether it is in the justice system or discipline in schools, restorative justice requires a paradigm shift in thinking about reactions to harm.”

This caught my eye, because when I start to describe how I approach discipline with my children, the first thing I have to explain is the paradigm shift required. To parent without punishment and imposed consequences, how you view things must change completely, so that you see it from a different perspective. This new perspective then provides a grounding point from which new ideas emerge. The tools one uses in non-punitive discipline become more apparent, more “obvious” when the new perspective is adopted. Similarly, when you view crime, and those that commit crimes, in a different light…when you consider society to be responsible for ALL its peoples (that means criminals and victims) then the process of Restorative Justice makes more sense.

“Restorative justice is fundamentally different from retributive justice. It is justice that puts energy into the future, not into what is past. It focuses on what needs to be healed, what needs to be repaid, what needs to be learned in the wake of crime. It looks at what needs to be strengthened if such things are not to happen again.”

– Susan Sharpe, Restorative Justice: A Vision for Healing and Change, 1998

The woman in the news story said she had a choice: she could follow a path of vengeance, or one of forgiveness. She felt that the former could never truly heal her, but that the latter would.

That word, Forgiveness, is thrown around so much in our culture it becomes meaningless. Christians consider it the cornerstone of their faith, yet I have met few people who truly understand what it means. To me, true forgiveness is recognizing that the aggressor, the perpetrator of the crime, is a human being. He/she is someone’s child. They have a story. They have walked miles in their shoes that nobody else can know of, nor understand. You hear people say “lots of folks were abused as children, and they didn’t grow up to be theives”. And yet those folks who didn’t were, by definition, different. They apparently had coping mechanisms, either instilled in them or bestowed upon them by a lucky roll of the genetic dice, that allowed them to handle their abuse in a way that didn’t lead them to poor choices. I don’t believe it is as simple as choosing to be “bad”. None of us truly have free will, in that respect, as I eluded to in my earlier post.

So I will let you peruse that website, and consider a world where victims and aggressors could be brought together to heal. I think it brings a kind of closure to the victims that no amount of punishment or revenge can ever hope to do. Watching a man “fry and die” cannot bring healing to a broken heart. Hatred can never bring peace. But seeing a criminal as part of society, a person with unmet needs, a person as valued and worthy as the victim…I think that if we could bring that feeling to criminals, that they are valued and wanted by society, rather than rejected…I think we could do more to bring down crime rates than an infinite number of prisons.

Restorative Justice is just one form of non-punitive discipline (as applied to Crime). I’m sure they may be others. It may not be perfect, it may not be realistic in all cases. But it serves as an example that it IS possible to view justice in a framework that does not involve punishment.

Ultimately, I think the limitations on a punishment-free system of Justice are those of our own understanding. We don’t have the knowledge to really reach out to, and heal, all those who are damaged. Some of them are, by our current technologies, beyond our ability to treat. But that doesn’t mean they are untreatable. We may, at times, just have to do the best we can. And sometimes that may mean removing these people from the opportunity to do harm, just as sometimes we must remove a child from a situation when their coping mechanisms can’t handle it at that time. Still, to hold as a goal the idea that we could reach out to, and heal, all criminals…that we could meet everybody’s needs (or at least make that a priority in our culture)…I think there is tremendous value in that, even if we can’t meet that goal just yet.

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