2013-02-01

Making Healing Part of Justice

In a Restorative Circle, in which authors, receivers, and community are brought together, the first stage is for everyone to speak what they want to say and receive confirmation that they have been heard. The second stage, then, is identifying good reasons why the horrible thing happened. What were “the underlying values that people were attempting to take care of when they said those painful words, when they did those painful things.” As Dominic Barter says,
“When we listen not just to words, but to meaning, when we start to connect on that level of meaning, we suddenly discover that actually we have the same fundamental values.”
The third stage is for each person to articulate what they are now prepared to do next.

Our current justice system pretends that it might change behavior by threat of repeated punishment. That pretense has been growing more and more obviously false. Restorative justice aims to change behavior through healing.

Our current justice system pretends that individual behavior is primarily determined by rational calculation to avoid even small probabilities of long-term punishment. That pretense entails ignoring a fundamental fact: the people most likely to cause harm are those who have been harmed themselves. The abused become abusers. Restorative justice makes room for greater complexity. It recognizes that all people are built to want safety, status, acceptance, security, self-respect, and that their environment powerfully shapes what strategies are available to them to get these things. Gang membership, for instance, is a strategy for safety, acceptance, and status, and when that is the best available strategy, then that strategy is going to be taken. Authors need to be in relations of accountability for their actions – we are responsible for what we do. Communities are also responsible for shaping the context that makes certain strategies appear – or be – the best bet.

Our current justice system makes crime and punishment the province of specialists. We delegate the responsibility to the police, to prosecutors, to judges and juries. We expect the system to make the danger disappear, make offenders disappear, keep them out of sight. While current system is far superior to a system of personal vendettas, the current system is also far inferior to a system providing peaceful ways to be involved and connected with a process of healing.

A retributive justice system amounts to the state executing revenge on our behalf. It’s still got vengeance – retribution – at the core. The best possible outcome in our current system is that we get even. Restorative justice offers the possibility that we get well.

The work of Roca was brought to my attention by my colleague, Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs. He learned about it from Carolyn Boyes-Watson’s book, Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth: Bringing Justice Home (Click here.) Roca is “a feisty community-based youth organization” that serves one of the “most broken and dangerous urban neighborhoods” in the United States. Roca’s mission is “to promote justice through creating opportunities for young people to become self-sufficient and live out of harm’s way.” The Roca staff began to employ a form of restorative justice called peacemaking circles. These circles echo the practices of social healing used by indigenous cultures since time before time. Restorative justice approaches such as Roca’s have begun to lower juvenile incarceration rates around the country.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 5: "Conflict is a Good Thing"
Previous: Part 3: "Authors and Receivers"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"