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Victims and offenders meet: RJ’s greatest challenge

Posted May 25th, 2009 by
Meeting with a Killer

Meeting with a Killer

Today is Memorial Day which was established after the Civil War to commemorate the dead in both the North and the South. More than 600,000 soldiers died. Slavery was officially abolished. Other forms of re-enslavement and official discrimination against people of African descent continued, of course. But the Civil War was a watershed event in our nation’s history. I choose today to remember and ponder the enormous impact that injustice, oppression, and inequity based upon the color of one’s skin has had throughout our nation’s history and continues to have today.

I’ve been home from Virginia for a few days now. I’ve allowed what I absorbed over seven days of study in the CJP Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU to settle in my mind. It comes to this: as the name implies, Restorative Justice comprises two integrated parts. Our goal is to be as restorative as possible in achieving justice in response to wrongdoing.

I took this course because of my interest in understanding how RJ principles apply to the historic wrongdoing of slavery, its horrific aftermath through Jim Crow, and systemic racism that lingers today. There is much to consider.

Ideally, RJ is the result of successful encounters among three stakeholders-victim, offender, and community-resulting in the highest degree of repair possible in response to the harm that has occurred. Achieving this ideal is challenging, messy, and sometimes impossible. When one loses a loved one to murder, loses innocence to rape, loses a sense of safety to violent attack, or inherits the damage of slavery and racism, it becomes clear that full restorative justice cannot always be achieved.

Our class spent significant time looking at case studies of victim/offender encounters; sometimes the community participated, sometimes not. I’ll describe several. I won’t include much in the way of responses from our class. I encourage readers of this blog to consider your own responses given what we’ve already discussed in terms of RJ principles, victims, and offenders.

The first model we looked at was the Family Group Conference system within Maori culture in New Zealand. Howard says he doesn’t know of a culture that puts more emphasis on dealing with cultural issues in their justice system. They have developed and incorporated a restorative system that is both characteristic of the Maori people and operates as the hub of their entire juvenile system. Courts are not the “default” or preferred option but rather provide backup and oversight. Only 20% of crimes get into the “official” court system. Even if you do go to court you’ll end up back in a family group conference for sentencing. The system isn’t a Maori system but a system within which the Maori cultural processes can work. This process is used for minor as well as serious offenses other than murder and sexual assault (which go to court). For more information see The Little Book of Family Group Conferences, New Zealand Style, by Allan MacRae and Howard Zehr.

In the video we watched, Steven broke into a car and stole a camera. He says he threw it away but he actually sold it for $50. The young man didn’t just steal a camera. He stole memories and a sense of order and safety from his victims. Steven, his family, and members of his community meet with the couple he victimized and representatives of the justice system. Through the FGC process the harm is acknowledged; Steven apologizes. A contract is drawn up for reparations to the direct victims as well as to the community that feels less safe as a result of Steven’s offense. Core elements of the plan include putting things right for the victim, addressing underlying causes, and ensuring support for fulfilling the plan. His extended family will monitor Steven’s compliance as will the court. If he doesn’t comply the court will consider harsher sanctions. Steven is offered a path toward restoration that includes being welcomed back into his community.

We watched a film about Circle Process Sentencing in response to spousal abuse in the Yukon. Circle sentencing draws from aboriginal cultures and early western culture. Circles are a natural way for people to feel like equal participants. See The Little Book of Circle Processes, by Kay Pranis.

Where RJ concepts are really put to the test is in the context of significantly violent crime such as murder and sexual assault. One of the most difficult situations we encountered was in the documentary film Meeting with a Killer. In 1986, two 15-year old boys raped and murdered a 26-year old woman. She had a 5-year old daughter. Some fifteen years later that now-grown daughter and her grandmother, the victim’s mother, meet with one of the offenders.

I’ve seen this film twice now. It is one of the most difficult examples of an attempt at RJ I’ve encountered. It is important to understand that, like it or not, a relationship is established between an offender and his/her victim. At the core, RJ is about relationships. Victim families are almost always conflicted; some want to participate in meeting with the offender and some don’t. This was as successful an encounter as I believe was possible. The victim’s mother and daughter, Kathy and Amy, had questions answered that only the offender, Gary, could know. Gary, who himself had been sexually abused throughout his childhood, felt like he’d finally done something good in his life by being honest with Amy and Kathy.

We watched Concrete Steel & Paint, a film about offenders and victims working together to create a mural for the community outside the prison that reflects crime, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This is not a situation in which victims met their specific offender. This is victims and offenders meeting and creating art together while discussing victimhood and offender responsibility. There are many resources and options for incorporating RJ into one’s life work. As one of my classmates pointed out, how many opportunities do we miss for hope and healing?

We watched Beyond Conviction, which tells three stories. A brother meets with the sister he raped. A murderer meets with the mother of his victim. A murderer meets daughter of his victim/girlfriend.

We watched Hollow Water, about the aboriginal people in the community of Hollow Water in Manitoba, Canada where two thirds of the children were subjected to sexual abuse.

And we watched Forgive but not Forget, a story from the 60 Minutes television show about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Though held up by many outside of South Africa as a model for healing that should be replicated elsewhere, many South Africans were unsatisfied with “truth and reconciliation.” They wanted “truth and consequences.” In response to the question of whether TRC was taking Christianity too far Desmond Tutu said that Christianity has always taken chances. “Those who have committed monstrous acts are not monsters.” They remain human beings.

Yet watching so many white men admit to horrific murders not out of regret but to save their skin is sad and hurtful. So many men justified the horror they perpetrated by claiming it was their duty. They were just following orders. Desmond Tutu must’ve clearly had more insight than I do about what he was trying to achieve. I don’t understand how healing occurs for most victims. I try to see the TRC through the RJ lens. I wonder where the various participants are now.

Our class considered this question: was the TRC Restorative Justice? Not fully; it lacked accountability. Reparation was inadequate. One had to be a victim of political apartheid so victims who couldn’t directly connect their harm to political apartheid had no options. There was a failure to address economic and social apartheid. There was also a lack of victim-offender dialogue. In fact, a whole group of victim/offender mediation groups offered to help and their offer was rejected by TRC.

On the plus side, much truth was told (both individual and systemic). Many victim needs were addressed. And South Africa did participate in a national debate. This is something the United States has never accomplished in response to slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing systemic racism that permeates our institutions.

And this is what it all comes down to for me; the reason I took this course. How do the principles of RJ apply to undoing, and healing from, systemic racism in the United States? From the TRC we can learn the overall value of restorative processes and principles. We witness the centrality of needs such as acknowledgement, truth-telling, involvement, information, and restitution. We see the importance of addressing both the micro (individual) and macro (societal). The TRC modeled the partnership of government and civil society. It showed the importance of follow-through, and the value of symbols and rituals in the healing process. Though it wasn’t fully successful, the TRC does offer keen insight into ways we might approach a national dialogue on race in the United States.

Howard Zehr sums up what I believe is key as we consider the value of Restorative Justice. RJ isn’t a map. It’s more of a compass that can point us in a general direction. From his blog:

Increasingly for me, what is most important about restorative justice is the framework it provides: the values and principles around which we can fashion our responses to wrongdoing. Sometimes all of the elements of restorative justice are possible. In real life, however, justice may have to be approximate. In other words, restorative responses and practices fall on a continuum of “restorativeness.” While we should always aim to be as restorative as possible, it is important to acknowledge that full restorative justice is not always achievable. Moreover, good can come of those approaches that seem incomplete.

Thank you to Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz for all you taught us. Your insights, thoughtful presentations, and ways of engaging our class had a powerful impact. Your words and the concepts you taught are at the core of what I have shared here in this blog. It is my hope that more people will be exposed to the framework of Restorative Justice.

Our world will be better for it.

3 responses to “Victims and offenders meet: RJ’s greatest challenge”

  1. James says:

    Tom, I realize this is only at the earliest stage. But I think you raise an intriguing possibility in suggesting that the principles of restorative justice could be used to address systemic racism in the U.S.

    Have you given any thought to how RJ might be adapted to a situation in which the people taking part aren't personally guilty of the underlying offenses? It seems to me that this may be the critical difference between most justice situations, including TRC in South Africa, and what you're looking to apply RJ to here, and the part which may be most interesting (and most tricky, as well).

    For instance, might groups of people today act as stand-ins for historical perpetrators? Or would the effort focus not on the worst actions that brought us to this point, but on much more subtle behavior which is still commonplace, like benefiting passively from unintended privilege or not attempting to change the status quo? Would that manage to encapsulate systemic racism in the U.S., and could it be handled as an instance of RJ? I'm assuming that your thought isn't, like in South Africa, to focus on people who have engaged in particularly egregious behavior, such as overt racism, but of course I could be wrong about that.

  2. Tom says:

    Great questions and observations, James. What I find most promising is the framework that RJ provides. Who all has been harmed (victims, oppressors, communities)? What are their needs? Who all has obligations to meet these needs? Though I've studied Restorative Justice for the most part in its application to criminal acts the principles apply to all sorts of harms. The lens I view this from is one of injustice based in constructs of race.

    You're correct that my personal interest isn't focused on people who engage in particularly egregious behavior but on the more subtle behaviors that prop up the status quo. And I agree that this is tricky ground upon which to tread. These concepts are at the core of the work we're doing with Coming to the Table in trying to identify models of healing that will succeed, and be sustainable for individuals as well as communities.

    Much more to come; both research and discussions… I look forward to working with folks on these issues and confronting the difficult questions regarding RJ applications to issues of race.

  3. James says:

    Thanks, Tom. That's exactly what I needed to hear, especially since I had been hearing about RJ largely in the context of the criminal justice system or analogous situations (like TRC in South Africa).

    I think this sounds like a very promising avenue of inquiry, and I look forward to reading your further thoughts, and learning more about how RJ applies in these more complex situations, at some point in the future.

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