Restorative Justice: the way forward?
The criminal justice system is failing victims. At best they are pushed to one side and ignored. At worst they suffer additional distress because of the way their cases are handled in court. The hurt they have experienced is rarely acknowledged. Their questions are not answered. Their voices go unheard. They are not given the chance to forgive. The victim's needs are forgotten in the rush to apprehend and punish the offender.
Offenders may be punished severely, sometimes with long prison sentences. However, this is only a partial response. They are not made to account for their actions to the person they have harmed. Their punishment bears no relation to the victim's needs. They play a passive role and are not given the opportunity to make amends. It is easy for them to deny the damage caused by their offending and even to feel sorry for themselves. This is not justice.
Crime has consequences for the wider community too. However, the professionals take over. The forum for dealing with local conflicts becomes the police station and the courtroom. Communities are not allowed to take responsibility for their own problems. Those convicted of crime are set apart from family and neighbourhood. These circumstances make reintegration difficult.
The current model of justice sees crime as a violation of the State and its laws. It focuses on establishing guilt so that an appropriate amount of pain - measured in terms of the length of a prison sentence, hours of community service, or the size of a fine - can be allocated to the offender. This is known as retributive justice.
However, there is another way. It is known as restorative justice and sees crime primarily as a violation of the relationships between people. Its emphasis is on trying to repair the harm done by reaching an agreement between victim and offender. The parties to the crime search for an acceptable solution, with the support of professional mediators and the courts. The focus is on solving problems, reassuring victims and holding offenders to account.
Research shows that most victims who participate in a restorative process experience a greater degree of satisfaction than those who are involved in more traditional judicial procedures. Offenders generally have little difficulty understanding what is required of them. When informed realistically about its potential, the public appears to favour the restorative approach to crime.
justice is not just another new programme to be bolted onto the existing
system. It is a radically new vision about how to manage crime and treat
offenders. A variety of schemes are being tested in America, Canada,
New Zealand, Australia, England and other countries. Most common are
victim-offender mediation projects where both parties meet in a structured
environment with a trained facilitator. The offender will have admitted
guilt, participation is voluntary and the outcome is based on consent.
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