Restorative justice has brought new light and vision to the way justice processes unfold. Central to this vision are the needs of people who have been harmed by criminal acts. Working toward a more holistic approach to justice is an arduous endeavour and at this point we can only glimpse the first few dawning rays of that healthier reality.
The emphasis of our current justice system focuses on criminal acts as a violation of the law, an offence against the state. To be fair to this system, the focus on objectivity that it intends is an improvement over the impulsive and vengeful justice of the mob that still prevails in some quarters. Still, for every two steps forward, it seems there must be a step backward. The emphasis on objectivity (i.e. facts, not feelings) has also created a process where the person who has been harmed become little more than a spectator in a courtroom drama, a production that has little connection with the heartache experienced by the persons who have been harmed.
This ends up being a lose-lose situation because the persons who have been harmed leave the justice process feeling confused, ignored and betrayed. Meanwhile, the person who has done the harm is sheltered from experiencing the implications of his or her actions and this becomes a barrier to growth. Instead of paying attention to the harm, the accused person spends precious time trying to negotiate a settlement that will minimize the amount of punishment doled out. However, efforts are being made to correct these imbalances and those efforts are quite fruitful.
Recently my family initiated a mediation process that is facilitated through the Restorative Opportunities program co-ordinated by Correction Services Canada. This service allows people who have been harmed by a criminal act to meet with the person who has done the harm. The process is completely voluntary for both the person who has done the harm and the persons who have been harmed. Prisoners cannot use any aspect of the process to reduce their sentence or increase the probability of parole.
The process unfolds through a series of steps. The facilitator meets with each party separately a number of times and then, when both parties are ready, a face-to-face meeting is organized. The process takes a good deal of commitment and goodwill on all sides but I have been quite encouraged by the results so far.
In our case the offence involved two men breaking into my mother’s home and attacking her. My mother was seriously harmed as one of the men struck her with an axe, severing her ear and causing a concussion. Both men were arrested immediately after the event and one of them was sentenced as a dangerous offender. (The implications of this sentence are that he will likely never leave prison.) The trauma of the break-in was, perhaps, more extreme than my mother’s physical injuries. She had just moved into Saskatoon from a small town, following the death of my father, and this experience left her with a permanent sense of insecurity about her safety in her new home.
As the mediation process unfolds, the facilitator who is working with us related the content of his first visit with the person who committed the offence — I’ll call him M. He shared that M confessed to a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about the offence and that he immediately agreed to engage in a process that would result in meeting face to face.
Unlike the proceedings that take place in our courts, the emphasis here is on how we feel and on communicating the harm that has been done. This is essential to healing and transformation. M can never turn the clock back and remove the offence, but encountering him in his humanity helps us to see that the attack was not the work of a cruel, indifferent person. There is some peace in knowing that he cares about the harm he has done.
I also believe that being able to express this to the people he has harmed can lead to transformation in his life. Even though he may spend the rest of his life in prison, an inner transformation may lead to a degree of freedom that would be inaccessible without this encounter and that also brings me a sense of peace.
Oliver is community chaplain for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.