Q: Archbishop J what is Restorative Justice (RJ) and why does the Church support it?
Restorative Justice (RJ) is a system of justice that brings together the offender, the victim and the community to establish truth, make amends and integrate the offender into the community.
One of its main proponents Howard Zehr says: “Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
Justice, the beginnings
Children have a keen sense of justice: they know what is fair and what is not. They cannot accept what is unfair or what they perceive to be unfair. Sharing of toys, food or any desired item could end in a full-scale war.
Parents need to learn mediation skills very quickly and find solutions for childish disputes. My mother had a perfect system regarding distribution of food. There were two of us; one did the dividing, the other chose first. Justice was achieved.
Multiple consequences arise from the first sin in Genesis 3: hiding from God because of shame, blaming the other, and pain from work and in procreation. These four aspects of the story speak to four dimensions of sin, which always indicate a rupture with God, with the self, with the community and the environment. Every antisocial act has the same four dimensions. Justice requires the four dimensions be addressed and healed.
Our current justice system
Our current justice system is based on a philosophy of crime and punishment: if you do the crime, you have to do the time. The idea is that a sufficient deterrent for antisocial behaviour will produce a good and just society. The small problem is that it does not work.
When a crime is committed, a suspect is charged and then waits to be granted bail if allowed. In our country there is a wait of many years for the trial to begin. Some cases have gone on for 10–15 years. By the end of the case, the time lapse has disconnected the legal process from the offence and thus from a meaningful resolution.
If the person is innocent, the time spent for resolution has been an unfair burden on the person charged and also on the victim. The philosophy behind the system is punishment, calculated in time, money or other deprivations.
In such a system, the person charged does everything in his or her power not to acknowledge the crime and to get the most lenient sentence possible. Thus, the basic human need for justice is not satisfied.
There is no clear admission of guilt, no apology for the wrong done, no meaningful encounter between the victim and the offender, no forgiveness offered and no restoring of the rights and dignity of the offended. The basic human elements of justice are passed over and people remain with the trauma of the event without a meaningful option for healing.
Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris saw the problem and began a petition to review the cases of those held on remand for an unusually long time. We must continue this work.
In our system some who are charged cannot get bail because of their crime; some are granted bail but cannot pay. They may remain in jail without a trial for many years. This is a fundamental injustice.
There are currently 2,500 people on remand awaiting trial. Many of these for periods longer than the maximum sentence had they been found guilty of the crime for which they were held.
A Restorative Justice approach
In an RJ approach, the victim, the accused and the community sit together and enter into dialogue. There is a formal admission of guilt, a penalty to be paid and forgiveness given. The crime is against a human being and so the solution needs all parties to work towards a resolution.
Because the accused needs to face the victim it is not an impersonal matter. It is very personal, very human and thus healing. But, RJ is not a soft approach. There is a price to be paid that all parties must agree to.
Justice is directed towards the offended and so it is humanised. In our current system the focus is on retribution. RJ it is about restoring relationships through truth, forgiveness, paying a price and thus establishing justice.
The most famous use of RJ was in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. The Government of National Unity determined that a criminal system would have torn the society apart further. So they established the TRC to give a space for healing. Incredible things happened.
Allen R Hunt in his book Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebody narrates the story of a Black South African woman facing the police who killed her son and husband.
After the open admission and confession of guilt by the white policeman, the woman was asked if she wanted to say anything. She said all that was valuable was taken from her, but she still had a lot of love to give and asked that the policeman visit her every month so she could cook a meal for him. True justice was achieved.
It resulted in repair of the relationships through encounter between victim and offender, and thus transformation of both people through the forgiveness and restoration of both the victim and the offender into the community.
Key Message: Justice is best served when it is relational—the victim, offender and the community working together to offer solutions through a clear admission of guilt, asking for forgiveness and paying a suitable price agreed to by all parties.
Next Step: Look at your disposition to being offended and those you offend. Is it seeking true justice or seeking retribution if offended? Is it about trying to pay the least price possible while not really asking forgiveness if you are wrong?
Scripture passage: Matthew 18:15–20