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Restorative justice creates opportunity for healing


By Dianne Woloschuk


After a long weekend away at a November family wedding some years ago, my family and I came home to find our back door slightly ajar and our aluminum-slider kitchen windows lying unbroken on the lawn. A cursory look through the house revealed that the closets and some kitchen cupboards had been searched and the master bedroom thoroughly turned over, closets and dresser drawers emptied on the floor. Still, it seemed that nothing was missing, except a few Nintendo games and four dollars from our two boys’ smashed piggybank.

We called the police. The responding officer told us that those responsible for the break-in were probably young, looking for cash, alcohol and drugs. He spoke patiently and seriously with our sons about their losses. Afterward, the officer explained to us that he would follow up with us if anything came to light.

For the next while our sons seemed unsettled and anxious, especially when they were going to bed. It bothered me that people had gone through my house like it was a store, looking to pick and choose what they wanted. A few years later, after another break-in, we installed a home security system.

This is a very small story about a day or two in the life of my family, about experiences that have been left largely unresolved, though they have not played a significant part in our lives. Every once in a while I still wonder about the people who came unbidden into our home. I would wish to bring resolution and healing into that story and to mend damaged trust.

Justice and good order have long been considered hallmarks of a well-functioning society, in Canada and elsewhere. As citizens we place trust in the courts to uphold the law, to protect both society at large and individual citizens, and to ensure fair processes for the accused in criminal proceedings. We also know the limitations of that system — wrongful convictions and unresolved cases, for example. Nevertheless, being “tough on crime” and pursuing a “law and order” agenda have been major planks in various political parties’ election campaigns, here and elsewhere. TV networks are replete with crime dramas focused on the adversarial relationship between victim and offender, the pivotal role of prosecution and defence lawyers, and the workings of the criminal justice system, as achieving some degree of justice resulting in a conviction and sentencing.

This concept of justice rests on the understanding that crime is an act against the law. The focus is on establishing blame or guilt, an offender’s past behaviour often playing a significant role in that process. Achieving justice involves gaining retribution against the offender and exacting a penalty for wrongful acts, so that offenders are held accountable through punishment.

Retributive justice imposes pain to punish; it is viewed as effective in deterring crime and changing offender behaviour. Crime is understood as an individual act with individual responsibility, and the criminal justice system as the chief agent in controlling crime. Victims are peripheral to the process. The community is also left on the sideline, represented by the state. Though retribution against the offender may be achieved, the process does little to heal the hurt done to the victim, re-humanize the damaged relationship between the victim and the offender, or rebuild trust within the community.

Re-humanizing relationships and healing hurt are no small tasks, yet that is what restorative justice seeks to do. Its underlying principle is that crime is an act against another person and the community, not simply a violation of the law, and that crime has both an individual and a social dimension of responsibility. Thus, restorative justice acknowledges that crime harms, not just individuals, but the community, which then has an important responsibility in controlling crime.

Victims are central to resolving crime, and accountability for offenders involves assuming responsibility for and taking action to repair harm they have caused. Punishment alone is not effective in changing behaviour, and it disrupts community harmony and good relationships. So the focus is on problem-solving and on what should be done in the future to make reparation. Restitution becomes the means by which both parties are restored through reconciliation.

The community has an important role as facilitator in the restorative process. Where in retributive justice processes victims and offenders are dependent upon lawyers to act on their behalf, restorative processes invite their direct involvement, focusing on the harm done by the offender’s behaviour and how it can be remediated, for both their sakes, and for the well-being of the community as a whole.

An interest in restorative justice is what prompted me, along with my husband, to begin volunteering at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre a little over a year ago. It is what motivated me to become a member of the board of the Micah Mission, an ecumenical Christian organization whose mission is to bring restorative justice processes and healing to victims, offenders and the community. Through this work I have become convinced that simply returning offenders to society when they have completed their sentences and allowing the wounds in victims’ lives to remain open does a great disservice to them and to their communities.

Many of the men I meet at the correctional centre are young. Many are Aboriginal. Many have addictions. Who knows what their experiences have been? What of their future? Is it to be an endless cycle of crime, prison, release and more crime? There is a need for healing.

If, as a society, we are to prevent the creation of more victims and the entrenchment of criminal behaviour in offenders, then something has to be different. Creating and sustaining mediation programs can offer victims of crime the opportunity to meet the person who offended against them, if they are open to doing this, and to experience reconciliation and a return to wholeness. In his recent article (PM, Aug. 31, 2016), Peter Oliver described the healing and wholeness restored through just such a process to his mother, their family, and the offender who had grievously harmed her.

Strong, healthy relationships are at the heart of peaceful communities. Reconciliation is essential to sustaining those relationships, and restorative processes create the opportunity for healing damaged relationships. All those years ago, it is what I would have wished for my little boys: to sleep well at night again, to restore their trust in the safety of their home, and to know that we are all human beings — victims, offenders, and communities — children of God’s grace, held in God’s hand, and in need of healing and wholeness.

Woloschuk is a member of the Board of the Micah Mission and lives in Saskatoon.