The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Prisons: Retribution or Rehabilitation? (Part 2)

Last week I promised an alternative to prison in this blogpiece.  Before doing so, I want to recap with two observations.  First, most of those in prison are there for “crimes” that are not of a violent nature.  Second, prison does not rehabilitate or reform.  Indeed, a spell of time in jail is more likely to make the prisoner “better” at what they did that got them imprisoned in the first place.

That said, the practice of restorative justice has been experimented with and practiced in many parts of the world over the past few decades.  I have worked in the restorative justice area for a few years and have discovered seven lessons in that experience.  This blog talks about three of these lessons.  Next weeks blog will speak of the other four.

Brief Overview

In some ways, restorative justice is a very old practice which was superseded by a more retributive approach, at least in western styles of justice, over the past millennia or so.  More recently, certainly since the 1990s, restorative justice ideas and practices have begun to be re-introduced.  The indigenous peoples of New Zealand (Māori) and of North America incorporated restorative styles into their justice systems.  Mainstream justice systems then began to take note and in 1990 the book Changing Lenses–A New Focus for Crime and Justice by Howard Zehr shifted the lens of justice from a retributive one to a restorative one.

So, what is restorative justice and how does it differ from retributive justice?  The traditional system of justice throughout most western democracies is based on the belief that crime is an offense against the state and that the state must intervene to mete out justice and punishment.  Restorative justice, however, views crime as harming individuals and the community and/or the relationship between them.  It recognises that people - victims, offenders, and the community - are hurt by an offence.  Restorative justice attempts to repair the breakdown in these relationships and seeks to find ways to reduce re-offending.  It does this by bringing offenders, victims, supporters of both victims and offenders, and members of the community into a facilitated space in which all participants are encouraged to share their pain, hurt, fears, or disappointments.  From this sharing a plan emerges that becomes the offender’s community-based sentence. It is a plan that is agreed upon by all, including the offender(s) and the victim(s).

Seven Restorative Justice Lessons (1-3)

1. Remorse is Real.

People tell me that it is easy to express sorrow for a crime after the fact.  It is “just too easy” they tell me to look back in hindsight and say “I am sorry for what I did.” However, such glib reflections are also far too easy to express.  The reality that I experienced is that most often offenders are truly sorry for their actions and feel a deep sense of remorse.

Before every conference I met individually with every participant.  As I sat opposite offenders I looked into their eyes and most often I would see pain, grief and remorse. I could see it also in the way they clasped and unclasped their hands. I could hear it in the way their voice stuttered and they grasped, desperately sometimes, for words to adequately express their feelings or thought processes.

I recall one conference in which the offender was charged with assault and damaging property. The offender in this case was a young man who was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. When it came to putting together a plan for him there was discussion about him doing some voluntary work at the victim’s business. However, the victim was reluctant to do this as it would mean that the people who worked for the victim would be put out of work. During the conference it became known that the offender had a passion for tropical fish (many with Aspergers become very passionate and knowledgeable about a specific topic or interest). It was suggested that he could clean out the fish tank at the victim’s business. Immediately, his eyes lit up and I could see that he was thinking “yes, this is something I can offer back, and something I have an expertise in.” This desire to give back clearly stemmed from feelings of remorse, and he wanted to find a way that he could repair the harm done.

2. Healing Happens.

As I sat with each individual participant before bringing them together into a conference, the most common feelings that all expressed, whether they were victims, offenders, or the supporters, were ones of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and yes, often anger. I would listen to their story, with empathy and without judgment. I would reassure each and every one of them that they would be able to tell their story in the conference. Victims would be able to look at the offender and tell them of the harm done to them and how this affected them, their families, their work colleagues, or others. Offenders would be able to apologise to the victim and others if necessary. All participants would be listened to and heard.

By the end of, often, a two hour process those feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and anger, were largely dissipated and a healing for all had begun. Victims felt heard, often for the first time since the incident. Offenders too, felt that they had been able to tell victims about how troubled they had been by holding onto their remorse.

3. Forgiveness Follows.

Desmond Tutu1 notes that forgiveness is not a throw-away absolution of responsibility. Forgiveness, for him, does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean the process is easy. I have witnessed many tears in the conferences I have facilitated, and must admit, came close to shedding them myself on occasion. I did not count how many times that by the end of a conference the victim would approach the offender and offer to shake hands. I would guess though, that it would be in at least 90% of cases. In one very moving conference, the wife of a man who had been assaulted, walked across the room at the end of the conference and hugged her husband’s assailant and wished him well. If that is not an act of forgiveness then the word is an empty one.

Although the phrase, “I forgive you,” may not be uttered much in restorative justice settings, the intention is certainly present. When forgiveness is offered in this way the person who benefits most can be the victim, or victim supporters. In the expression of forgiveness they are released from a trap of anger and grief. Russell Marks2 notes that often the media (particularly tabloid style media) and other punitive commenters risk keeping victims trapped in an endless cycle of anger and grief, by insisting that they (the victims) should remain angry at the offender(s). Forgiveness, however, allows a victim to step out of this trap and to find a healthy way forward. And, I have seen this happen time and time again within restorative justice conferences.

Next weeks blog will look at the other four lessons: 4. We All Make Mistakes, 5. We Are All Human, 6. There Is Always A Bigger Picture, and 7. People Are Generous.

1. Rev Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, William Collins Books, 2014.

2. Russell Marks, Crime and Punishment; Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System, Redback, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, 2015. Russell Marks worked as a criminal defence lawyer and is an honorary associate at La Trobe University.

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