Tag Archives: community justice

Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under collaborative justice, criminal justice, jails, Prisons, Restorative justice, Uncategorized, Victim offender reconciliation

Jails: Do Not Expect Healing

Every once in a while, the media focuses on the dreadful state of our prisons, and the number of people suffering from serious mental health problems who are stuck in these institutions.

(For two recent articles on the topic, see  Kirk Makin’s reports in the Globe and Mail from January 2011, below:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/why-canadas-prisons-cant-cope-with-flood-of-mentally-ill-inmates/article1879501/
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/prisons-grapple-with-increase-in-mentally-ill-female-inmates/article1884243/  )

Each time, these exposés reveal the same tragedies:  There are far too many people who suffer from mental health problems in jail.  Jails are not the appropriate place for the treatment of the mentally ill.  Jails and jail conditions often exacerbate people’s already compromised mental health.  Each time, it appears that we have a mental health “crisis” in our justice system.

But the mental health “crisis” is not news.  It’s been an ongoing problem and shame for our society.

Some readers may be surprised at what these reports reveal.  But the fact that those institutionalized for having committed society’s most condemned acts are, themselves, suffering, should not be a surprise.

A person who turns to crime, especially violent crime, or one who returns to crime repeatedly, cannot be whole.

Crime is rarely an option chosen by rational people who have decent options in life.  When a child is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” the excited response is not, “I want to be a criminal.  I want to be drunk in public and do crazy things. I want to steal and beat up people, and shoot in a drive-by.” Crime is not the dream of a child.

And yet a chain of events usually leads some people to acts of crime.

In the majority of these cases, those people are not whole.  The chain of events chipped away at their mental health, at their stability, at their innocent and hopeful view of life.  The chain of events stripped away many of their options.

Of course, such circumstances generally do not abdicate an offender of responsibility.  But given our role in perpetuating these conditions, we must change our approach to crime.

After all, who else is responsible for the damage?  Who else is responsible for the untreated depression?  Who is responsible for the suffering and harm that result from a broken mental health system that often offers people drugs but no other support?  Who is responsible for the neglect and abuse a child receives?  Who is responsible for ignoring that neglect and abuse, for not lending a hand to the family that so badly needed it?  Who is responsible to parents who work at full-time minimum wage jobs, but who then don’t make enough to buy food and pay the rent, let alone save for college, pay for tutoring, or get qualified and sufficient counseling when needed?  Who is responsible for the lack of love, care, and attention in a child’s life, because his or her parent(s) were drunk, manic, or absent?  Who is responsible for throwing the mentally ill in jail (and then acting disappointed and angry, when that person commits another crime?)

We are.  The community is responsible.

We saw it coming and we turned away.

We saw the need for help and we ignored it.

We found it easier to say, “Well, the parents are responsible.”  “A tough childhood doesn’t justify turning to violence later.”

Yet we know that certain factors certainly lead to deteriorated mental health.  And we know that people with serious mental health problems are disproportionately represented in our jails.  We know that certain factors are more likely to lead to a life of trouble with the law.  We know all this, and yet we ease our conscience by abdicating our responsibility.  We know that A leads to B, and we do nothing to intervene.  We provide no support.  And then we cry in shock, shake our heads, and condemn people when A did lead to B.  We throw people in prison, when we know that prisons are ineffective as a place to rehabilitate people.  We relegate the mentally ill to jails, but provide them with no services to address their ailments.

And then we do it all over again, knowing what is to come.

If we want to fix it, we have to prevent it.

If we want justice, we have to seek it together, right from the start.

We have to collaborate to make us all: victims, offenders, and the community, whole.

Imagine what would have happened that first time a young man was charged with theft or robbery if we did things differently.  What if, instead of dealing with him in court, where we largely ignored him or his victims and where just handed him a quick sentence (whether apparently lenient or apparently harsh), we involved him, his victims, and his community?

What if he really listened to and heard about the impact of his actions?  What if the victims and others in the community listened to what got him there?  What if they caught the beginnings of a mental illness?  What if the community observed that the young man had little support at home: his single mother was working around the clock at jobs which provided little security.  He has very few of those extras that might make our children’s lives rich: the security of not worrying about where his food will come from, knowing that his father will be home to speak to him about his day, loving and available grandparents, engaging activities, and most importantly, the knowledge that he is moving forward, that there is hope for progress in his life, that he can make an improvement in his life and his family’s life.

What if everyone was involved in righting this wrong, and making each other and themselves whole?

The young man would likely take responsibility for his actions, and attempt to make it up to his victims.  He would practice empathy. He could see his own ability to make a positive impact on others and himself.  His self-esteem would gain a boost.

In the process, he becomes a whole person to his victims, who feel less anxious and afraid, having gotten to know the person who harmed them.  They feel more healed by participating in the process, where the offender accepted accountability and tried to help them.  And what’s more, as so often happens in true collaborative justice, the victims and the community step in to support the young man so that he can choose a different path in the future.  If the beginnings of a mental illness are discovered, the community may pitch in with support: financial or services, to help him and his family manage the illness.

Put aside our needs to condemn and to blame.  Replace it with empathy and with accountability by all, and amazingly, we are likely to see a lot less crime.

The presence of so many people with mental health problems in the criminal justice system shows us how wasteful and immoral is our individualistic, punishment-oriented approach.

We cannot expect our government to take care of our people if we, ourselves, do not want to be bothered, want to go our merry way, want to turn a blind eye.  It’s time that we, as communities, stepped in and held ourselves accountable.

2 Comments

Filed under mental health