Restorative Justice – A Truly Non-Violent Alternative

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 46, Spring 2008

by Jim Consedine

With the advent of an almost totally secular society, the Church has good reason to look to its essential teachings and seek to understand why so many have little appeal at this time in history. I believe the answer partly lies in the ability of Christians to pull the teeth from the Risen Christ and his teachings and yet still claim to be disciples. Too many Christians seem to relate better either to a warrior God who wields a sword and punishes or to a marshmallow one who doesn’t stand for anything. Too few, it seems, relate to the biblical revelation of a non-violent liberating Christ who frees people from slavery and transforms their lives.

Some of those extracted teeth are to be found embedded in the referendum on harsher penalties presented to the New Zealand parliament in 1999 which was built on a formula of vengeance, fear and ignorance. It ran contrary to everything the gospel teaches. Did anyone hear Jesus take a harsh attitude to offenders in his time? No. He taught us to forgive and to show mercy. He repudiated the cornerstone teaching ‘an eye for an eye’ by stunning his followers with a call to love their enemies. He turned their whole concept of just punishment on its head with a reprieve for the adulterous woman and a warm welcome home for the prodigal son. What a crazy man! What a crazy God!

Furthermore, in the parable of the vineyard workers, Jesus taught us to practise restorative justice. He presented a process where each got what they needed. Jesus wasn’t into violence or punishment. He was into restoration and transformation. And forgiveness, that toughest of all Christian virtues to practise.

Some people scoff about forgiveness. They think it’s a sign of weakness. Yet the exact opposite is the case. Desmond Tutu has a great message on the importance of forgiveness for today’s world. He had listened to hundreds of horrific testimonies of the victims of apartheid as co-president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He heard daily of bombings, of murder, rape, shootings, pillage and torture. And he saw, every day, people confronting those who had brutalised them. And forgiving them. With huge spiritual and practical insight he wrote a book on his TRC experiences and titled it, No Future Without Forgiveness (Random/Rider, London, 1999)

Locking adults in small cells for up to 23 hours a day is an act of violence. Leaving children minus an imprisoned parent does violence to a family. Prisons help create more crime by bonding similarly minded rejected members of society together. They up-skill their graduates in further anti-social techniques. They are the principal recruitment locations for gangs. They create thousands of future victims because they guarantee continued high rates of re-offending. They fail in practically every positive human indicator scale. Prisons are structures of violence.

There is therefore huge irony in the fact that the principal response by the New Zealand government to the referendum on violent offending was to increase prison sentences, while at the same time it sought to outlaw the smacking of children. The irony is that prisons are themselves a form of structured violence which violate every major distinguishing mark that makes people fully human.

Locking adults in small cells for up to 23 hours a day is an act of violence. Leaving children minus an imprisoned parent does violence to a family. Prisons help create more crime by bonding similarly minded rejected members of society together. They up-skill their graduates in further anti-social techniques. They are the principal recruitment locations for gangs. They create thousands of future victims because they guarantee continued high rates of re-offending. They fail in practically every positive human indicator scale. Prisons are structures of violence.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The myth behind the demand for longer, tougher sentences is that this type of violent structure can change people for the better, that violence can be redemptive. It is the philosophy that spawned floggings, canings, strappings and birchings by state officials in prisons and schools in past generations. This myth is the grandparent of much physical child abuse in our own time.

As the theologian Walter Wink points out, the myth of redemptive violence has been the choice of every major social grouping of the 20th century, be it socialist, Marxist, capitalist, communist, whatever. This myth of redemptive violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. Nations have made redemptive violence the acceptable way of resolving injustice. Internationally, if nations have had a grievance it has been resolved either by the threat or use of violence. Only violence would correct (redeem) the injustice.

The results of this redemptive violence have been horrendous. We have just emerged from the most bloodthirsty century in history, with hundreds of millions of innocent people killed in its name.

We have applied the same philosophy and approach to domestic conflict, especially crime. Beat them and beat them hard, has been the catch cry down through the ages. Lock ‘em up (an act of violence) and throw away the key. Let’s hope that this violence will somehow redeem the situation and produce justice. It rarely if ever does. And so more and more prisons have been built and, while flogging and execution have been outlawed for 40 years in this country, the culture of state violence has remained through an expanding network of prisons.

Such an approach is testimony to our inability to find creative non-violent solutions. We act less than humanly when we continue to resort at first instance to violent solutions to society’s problems. Yet we do it all the time. Both war and prisons are violent responses to conflict. Rightly do we condemn aggression internationally and on the domestic front. We even banned smacking. But then we continue to respond with increased violence ourselves through promoting longer prison sentences. It doesn’t make sense, especially when there are creative non-violent alternatives available.

People faced with crime often ask, ‘but what can be done?’ A small number certainly need to be incarcerated in humane containment to protect society. Otherwise, we can and should explore and promote constructive non-violent processes. Restorative justice is one such process. At its heart it is a movement of hope, for victims, offenders and the community. It contains the possibility of offering people traumatised by crime or caught up in offending, a positive hope-filled and respectful way forward. It helps people take responsibility for their actions, initiates a healing process and offers a way forward.

Restorative justice is one such process. At its heart it is a movement of hope, for victims, offenders and the community. It contains the possibility of offering people traumatised by crime or caught up in offending, a positive hope-filled and respectful way forward.

Restorative Justice and Non-violence

Restorative justice is a movement of non-violence. It provides a mature human response to complex situations of conflict and crime. It does not necessarily provide a solution to either. But it is a process that respects those involved and enhances the families and communities to which they belong. It recognises that violence is unacceptable and provides a non-violent but challenging and positive way of proceeding. In so doing it draws on the legacy in this country of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi of Parihaka, James K. Baxter, Jean Stewart and Alan Nixon, and internationally of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ruth Morris and Dorothy Day.

Restorative justice appeals to the enlightened better side of human nature and not the fearful vengeful dark side. It is a movement of hope, for victims, offenders and the community alike. In a majority of cases, it is simply a better way of achieving justice.

Restorative justice should be welcomed as a genuine breakthrough in the resolution of conflict and in the promotion of justice. It is justice that matters, justice that everyone wants. Restorative processes will deliver better justice.

Longer sentences in prison simply re-enforce all the violent negative traits of personality, further embitter the incarcerated and guarantees re-offending.

The success of restorative justice processes is dependent on community ownership and acceptance and a passion for better forms of justice. Without these three things, they will always struggle to succeed. Passion for justice is the most important, the X-factor that makes the difference. Without passion, social change quickly runs out of steam. Passion is the quality which recognises the spiritual dimension to social change. Changing peoples’ hearts and minds is a spiritual movement, a matter of the soul. No amount of bureaucratic organising can produce this dimension.

Name any movement that genuinely changed the face of society and you will find an abiding passion for justice driving it. Change happens because people in the community with vision dream of a better way forward and commit themselves to it, regardless of the time, cost or energy involved. They succeed through educating the community and forcing vested interests to shift their focus.

The Government has shown imagination and courage in developing restorative justice as an integral part of our criminal justice procedures. Since the passing of the Sentencing Act 2002, RJ has been placed before the courts as an official response to criminal offending. The legislative framework is clearly in place. People have come from all around the world to see how well we are implementing these innovative measures.

How well have we done? The answer is probably not very well. Maybe a pass mark – but only just. In some districts, there has been a fantastic response. Rotorua, New Plymouth and Wanganui spring readily to mind. Some other areas use RJ processes more sparingly. But regrettably, there has been a muted response from far too many judges and lawyers and little political will to take it by the horns and make it a central part of sentencing policy. It is an opportunity being squandered.

Part of the problem lies with the lack of incentive. Most of us change our behaviour only when we perceive a benefit for ourselves in that change. Ask any reformed smoker! The same applies to choosing RJ as a way forward. The benefits inherent have to be seen and understood in order to get people to participate on a wider basis. It is clear now that restorative justice should have been presented as an alternative to the traditional punitive model, not an adjunct. Such a framework would have built-in incentives for all parties. Such an approach would have guaranteed its widespread use and the production of better results all round.

What is now required to make restorative justice a mainstream reality is its promotion through a genuine partnership between the Government, the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice and the community. The incoming Government must bring political will to bear and provide leadership. The judiciary play a pivotal role and can help the process immensely. The Ministry of Justice can bring infrastructure and planning skills, co-ordinating resources, encouraging participation and funding the salaries, research, public education and reviews required.

But it is the community who can make or break such development. If the public can understand the benefits to its social wellbeing that reducing prison numbers and promoting accountability, healing and restitution instead of using punishment – which leads to high recidivism rates – then we will indeed be a beacon to the world. And those who come seeking ways forward in their own countries, will find an exciting and dynamic modern-day model of criminal justice in operation.

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