1. We All Make Mistakes.
Let’s face it - we all make mistakes. We make many mistakes in our relationships with one another, especially in our younger years. One of the most common sentences I heard directed towards offenders in the restorative justice conferences was “we all make mistakes.” The speaker would then often go on to describe an incident in their youth, or talk about how mistakes can be used as something to learn from. Many times the conference itself was a vehicle for that learning to take place. Because restorative justice is a community-based program offenders are often put in contact with agencies, counsellors, psychologists, or other specialists, that can help them learn from their mistake.
Surely, it is far preferable that someone learns from their mistake, and finds ways to ensure that they do not make it again, than it is to dismiss the incident as “youthful exuberance” or, at the other extreme, lock them in jail with other offenders.
The offender learns that their offence isn’t simply one of them and the person they directly offend against. The direct victim always has family, maybe a husband or wife, or children that are affected in some way. The victim has work colleagues, or friends that they play sport with or socialise with. All these people are affected by the single incident involving the victim and offender. The ripple effects of crime can be extensive. Many times I saw the realisation of this dawn in the awareness of offenders. The restorative justice format is an excellent crucible within which these ripple effects can be displayed, heard, and appreciated. The “normal” court systems, and retributive justice, are unable to do this.
2. We Are All Human.
In last weeks blogpost I observed that all participants come into the restorative justice process with an array of feelings and emotions, many of them what we could call unhelpful emotions: pain, anxiety, hurt, fear, uncertainty, or anger. What I noticed was that these emotions were the most often displayed ones, irrespective of the participant’s role. Victims and offenders were just as likely to feel fearful or anxious. Supporters also displayed fear and hurt, whether they were supporters of the victim or the offender.
My observations of these universal feelings suggest to me two truths: First is that we are all human, we all react to trauma, disharmony, and upset in similar ways. We are not immune to a set of emotions just because we are the initiator of the disharmony. The second truth is that emotions such as fear, anxiety, and uncertainty suggest that we wish to re-establish order or harmony in our lives. Human beings desire to live harmonious lives, in concord with one another.
3. There Is Always A Bigger Picture.
When people come together to share their story, and to relate how they have been affected by someone’s actions, a bigger picture than the “simple” offence emerges. Victims share their hurt, their pain, and how the offence impacted their lives in an ongoing way. Victims get to look the offender in the eyes and tell them how they felt the next day at work, or what it was like to go home and tell their children why they have a black eye.
It does not stop there though. Often the back-story of the offender emerges also, whether told by the offender themselves or perhaps a supporter. Often I found that the offender was, at the time, experiencing a low point in their lives. Sometimes too, the mental state of the offender is discovered to include anxiety, depression, and perhaps even suicidal tendencies. Maybe the offender was working through some relationship or employment difficulties, with little or no support. None of this is to excuse the offence, but it does allow other participants to understand, even empathise, with the situation being faced by the offender.
Recognition of the bigger picture is crucial for enabling all the participants in the restorative justice process to recommend, and agree upon, courses of action, or outcomes, that have a realistic chance of making a difference in the offender’s life. One of the major objectives of most restorative justice programs is to reduce the possibility of re-offending. A bigger picture makes it more likely that the best possible plan will be forthcoming. A fine and/or jail sentence is unlikely to do this.
4. People Are Generous.
People want to help. I made this simple observation time and time again. People want to help others fully understand the situation or background. Often, victims want to help the offender make better choices in life. Some are able to offer very specific advice, others know of agencies or professionals who can help. Community representatives in restorative justice conferences can be extremely generous in offering their time, energy and skills for follow-up one-on-one work with offenders.
So much of our cultural and social conditioning tells us that we get ahead by competing with one another, and that the success or failure of others is not our concern. There is now much research showing that this conditioning provides us with false ideas. More often than not our happiness and feelings of self-worth are found in our helpful interactions with others. I witnessed the truth of this often in restorative justice conferences. I could see it in the faces of all participants when they moved towards grappling with how to make things better in the future. The frowns, grimaces, and tight jaws, would be replaced by smiles, greater eye contact, and ofttimes even laughter.
Although I witnessed these seven lessons (see last weeks blog also) in almost all of the more than 50 cases I was involved with, it was often not until participants experienced the process themselves that they were able to recognise these outcomes and come to appreciate them.
I could not sit down with a victim prior to a conference and tell them that, as a result of the conference they would come away healed, or perhaps even offering forgiveness. Creative writing has a phrase, “show, don’t tell.” It is a phrase pertinent to restorative justice also. Often I would sit with a victim one-on-one and they would tell me what they wanted for the victim. Sometimes that was a punitive outcome: “this guy needs to go to jail,” or “I want this person to have a record against their name for the rest of their life.” I just accepted these statements, without attempting to judge or suggest alternatives. In all cases where such sentiments were announced to me before the conference, the outcome was entirely different.
I recall one case in which the offender had stolen something from a shopping centre. Prior to the conference I met with the shopping centre manager who told me that he “wanted this guy locked up and that’s what I will be saying in the conference.” In the conference itself, he did not make that statement. By the end of the conference he was saying, as he looked at the offender, “Look mate, I don’t want you to go to jail. I think you have made some excellent changes in your life since and I support you, and want to encourage you to keep going.”
In at least three instances the victims offered to go along to the offender’s court hearing following the conference to offer support and, if able to do so, tell the Judge that they supported the victim in what they were doing to make changes in their lives.
Such changes can only come about through experiencing the restorative justice process. Although I have been involved in over 50 restorative justice conferences, I am unable to tell offenders that they will emerge from the process healed and perhaps forgiving. I can say, however, that by observing this happening, the restorative justice process is of enormous benefit to offenders and victims alike. It offers healing, and the chance to make better lives of everyone involved.