The aspect of Restorative Justice that most people find most challenging is in dealing with offenders. When someone causes harm to another what do they need in order to be restored? Once again I’m indebted to Howard Zehr (read Howard’s blog here) for what follows.

Retired Minnesota Judge Dennis Challeen has a lot to say about the paradox of prisons. They don’t do what we intend them to do; that is, make our communities safer. Challeen notes:

  • We want offenders to have self-worth so we destroy their self-worth
  • We want them to be responsible so we take away all their responsibilities
  • We want them to be part of our community so we isolate them from our community
  • We want them to be positive and constructive so we degrade them and make them useless
  • We want them to be trustworthy so we put them where there is no trust
  • We want them to be nonviolent so we put them where there is violence all around them
  • We want them to be kind and loving people so we subject them to hatred and cruelty
  • We want them to quit being the tough guy so we put them where the tough guy is respected
  • We want them to quit hanging around losers so we put all the losers in the state under one roof
  • We want them to quit exploiting us so we put them where they exploit each other
  • We want them to take control of their lives, own their problems, and quit being a parasite so we make them totally dependent on us

There are many problems with various forms of punishment meted out by our criminal justice system. They are often ineffective or even counter-productive. They focus on symptoms rather than causes. They have many unintended consequences. They encourage isolation rather than integration. Frankly, we have designed a system that makes things worse. The United States is the world leader in its use of imprisonment. We lock up our citizens at rates 5-8 times higher than other industrialized nations in Western Europe as well as Canada. Do we feel safer?

There are three aspects of Restorative Justice in particular that are key as we consider what justice requires for offenders.

  1. First is accountability. Offenders must understand the impact their behavior has on their victims. They must acknowledge their responsibility and take action to repair the harm to the degree it is possible. They must make changes to avoid causing harm in the future.
  2. Second is seeing offenders as victims. Offenders often perceive themselves as victims. In fact, many have been victimized prior to becoming offenders and were traumatized as a result. Trauma that is unaddressed is typically re-enacted. Too often we witness the transformation of a victim into a victimizer.
  3. Third is developing an understanding of the effects of shame (John Braithwaite has contributed greatly to understanding the impact of shame). Typically shame is used to degrade offenders. It isn’t just the offense that is bad; the offender is seen as bad. Thus, the offender becomes an outsider. We lack steps or rituals to terminate shame. The consequence of such degradation is that offenders avoid responsibility in order to avoid shame or else become what we label them: bad. They typically invert value systems and take pride in the very actions that “society” considers shameful. We must acknowledge that shame is a dangerous emotion. Our focus should be on managing shame, not causing it. Respect, forgiveness, and empathy are goals of Restorative Justice.

So what do offenders need?

For punishment to work as we intend it must be quick, certain, and consistent. It must be perceived as fair and deserved. The right message must be conveyed and received. It must be administered in a caring community with processes for re-integration.

Let me state clearly that some offenders need to be restrained/incarcerated for our safety and theirs. This is not necessarily the case for most offenders. Most need accountability that addresses the harm they caused, that encourages both empathy and acknowledgment of responsibility, taking actions to repair harm, and changes in attitude and behavior to avoid causing future harm. Encouragement for such changes include affirmation of their worth, having their needs addressed, and having their skills and proficiencies enhanced. Offenders need ongoing support and affirmation. They need rituals of termination, or “closure”, to signify reconnection with their community. They need enhanced, supportive, and genuine relationships.

If we want an effective and productive system of justice in which offenders change their behavior and our communities actually become safer then offenders need to know that even as they are held accountable for their actions they are valued as human beings within society just as others are valued.

For more information about the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding click here.