What is justice?
This is a question I had to ask myself recently. It seems like an easy question but when we consider events in our real life, what does justice look like? Can we have justice without punishment or are they inextricably linked?
We often confuse the two—justice and punishment. The former comes from a desire for fairness, and a sense that we must make amends for the wrongs we commit in order to keep our home, our community, our country, and our world working together peacefully. The latter comes from anger. Sometimes the anger is warranted, sometimes not. But, always, when we want to punish someone it’s about us, about feeding the Red Rabbit in the hopes that it will go away.
Several weeks ago, late at night, our truck was broken into. A few minor items were stolen but our wonderfully watchful neighbour noticed the thieves in action and called the police. Of the three youths apprehended, only one was actually carrying the stolen merchandise and he offered up a confession.
When I went to the police station to make my statement and identify our stolen items, the officer on duty informed me that there was a possibility that the youth would be going through the Restorative Justice program and asked if I would consent to that option.
In a nutshell, the program tries to keep offenders who do not have a history of crime out of the system. Instead of criminal charges, court appearances, and a possible record, Restorative Justice facilitates a meeting between all the parties and lets those affected by the crime come up with ideas for making amends.
I told the officer I would speak to my husband and let him know our decision.
Prez was not impressed. I believe the term “little shits” was used. As this was the second time we have had items stolen from our truck, he was not feeling particularly forgiving. He wanted the thief to be punished and felt that the best lesson was for the kid to suffer the legal consequences.
While I understood his feelings, I wanted to know more.
I asked my good friend Griffin, a police officer and fellow SF author, his thoughts on the program and whether it would be worthwhile. I know enough about Griffin to know that he’s seen his fair share of dumbassery on the job and he would have a well-informed opinion. My instincts were correct.
Griffin’s advice was to talk with the arresting officer and to try and find out his thoughts about the kid. Was he a known troublemaker or was he just a kid who’d made a stupid mistake? After all, we were all kids once and we all made stupid mistakes. A kid with a pattern of trouble, however, was probably going to see this option as an easy out.
Prez had a brief discussion with the arresting officer, wherein he was told that, due to some circumstances I can’t talk about here, the kid might not be eligible for the Restorative Justice program after all. Dilemma solved.
But then, several weeks later, I received a phone call to say that this was happening and would I still like to participate? I agreed to the initial meeting between myself and the two volunteer facilitators. At the conclusion of that meeting, I felt confident that the “Responsible Person” (this is the terminology that is used in the program instead of “criminal”) was someone who would benefit from this kind of intervention and that my time and effort would not be wasted.
Because this case involves a minor, I cannot share any of the details but I can give you an overview of what the Restorative Justice conference looked like and how I felt about it.
In a church basement (so weird sitting there with the Pope looking down on me from all angles), we gathered in a circle. There were two “Affected Persons”, myself and another fellow; three facilitators, each performing specific roles; the Responsible Person and his parents; and the police officer in charge of the case.
As we all sat there, expectantly, it was the most awkward moment I have found myself in for a long time. How was this going to play out? Would this turn into some kind of lynch mob?
No. It did not. The facilitator in charge of leading the discussion laid out the rules of engagement, which boiled down to respecting and listening to everyone and creating a safe space for all. He addressed us one by one with a series of questions and we were given ample time to talk about the crime, how it affected us, how it affected our family or friends, and what we hoped to accomplish at this conference. Everyone spoke honestly and there were tears shed by many, including the facilitators.
The Responsible Person was very quiet, obviously uncomfortable and genuinely remorseful. It was painful to watch him recount the events of that night, as he was clearly embarrassed to do so in front of the people from whom he had stolen.
When everyone had finished speaking, we moved on to the nuts and bolts of reparation. This was essentially a brainstorming session that was slowly and methodically weeded down to a contract of actions the Responsible Person must complete by specific dates. Once all parties agreed to the terms, I and the other affected party signed the contract and were informed we would receive a copy in the mail.
All told, the process took almost three hours. Three emotionally exhausting hours.
How did I feel about it? Good. Really good.
Whether this works or not, whether this young man gets his act together and chooses a better path from this point forward or slides backward, I feel as if we were working together for justice and to heal our community, not merely to vent our anger on a kid who made a bad decision and got caught.
For this kind of crime, I think the court system is actually the easy way out. Not many kids can grasp the significance of a criminal record when they aren’t even old enough to vote or live on their own or do any of the things that such a black mark really affects. There’s an anonymity to the system, too. I’m a name on a paper, a date, a file number, a collection of stolen property. But sitting across from me there is no way to avoid the fact that I am a real person, with a real story, and that you have harmed a member of your small community.
Conversely, instead of me sitting at home shaking my angry fist and shouting “Throw the book at him!”, I also have to sit across from a very real person. Listening to the Responsible Person and his parents, hearing the problems that they have been dealing with, reminded me that everyone is fighting a battle and we can choose to be allies or enemies to the people in our community.
In the completed contract, we agreed upon actions of reparation, (including physical labour), but every item was added with an eye to increasing empathy, helping the community, and supporting the Responsible Person to get off this dead end path. In fact, by the end of the conference, there was a tangible sense that we were far from a lynch mob and much closer to a support network.
Through it all, I felt safe, I felt respected, I felt listened to, and I felt as if justice was being done. It was a difficult and uncomfortable experience but, as I’ve said so often in the past, that is where growth happens.
I returned home, head swimming, considering how different the world might look if we sought justice instead of punishment. Sure there are people who need to be removed from society because of the danger they pose but how many others fall into the system never to return?
When we can stop that from happening, shouldn’t we?
They say justice is blind. I don’t believe that. I believe that justice requires us to open our eyes, ears and hearts. It requires work and humility. And sometimes it means sitting in a room and feeling awkward and uncomfortable for a few hours so that we can all see each other as real people.