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Face-to-face justice

Paul Chambers

It transfigured South Africa, Northern Ireland and Rwanda, and now it's
quietly working its way into our prisons. Facilitator
Paul Chambers celebrates the increasing presence of restorative justice in the UK penal system.

She walks down the long corridor from her cell to the meeting room, her fear and tension palpable. Never in my life have I seen someone so uncomfortable in her own skin. This young woman killed her father and now, nearly a decade later, is about to meet his brother - her uncle - for the first time since the death that irrevocably changed both their lives.

What does each hope to find in this meeting, with all its emotional risks? Perhaps some elusive answers to hard questions; but also a chance to tell their stories, to explain for the first time how deep the hurt has gone.

Sitting with them as their eyes met across the table, I silently will them to dig deep. Growth is rarely comfortable, and forgiveness can seem the most difficult of all human virtues to practice. And yet without it there is no reconciliation, either personal or collective - a belief I've reached not only through my Christian faith, but through my work in this growing field of restorative justice.
So what exactly is Restorative Justice? In simple terms it's about giving victims a voice. But more than that, RJ works to resolve conflict and repair harm. In practice, victim and perpetrator, often accompanied by family and friends, sit down with facilitators, who give the victim an opportunity to express their suffering and anger, and the perpetrator an opportunity to convey sincere remorse, and possible restitution for the harm. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a passionate advocate, admits it sounds a little like daytime TV. And yet he argues persuasively that, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent through the ages - and that restorative justice has played a large part in this.1

In fact there's nothing faddish or new about restorative justice. It has been around for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years in all but name. Native cultures such as Aboriginals, Maori and Native Americans used restorative practices to resolve conflict and to bring about a justice that healed. Sweat lodges, vision quests, pipe ceremonies, sentencing circles are all part of a process that looks at what has happened, how what has happened has affected the community and what needed to happen to bring healing to that situation. Where do we think 'circle time' in school came from? Even Anglo-Saxon communities once upon a time recognised victims when crimes had been committed, until the reign of Henry I marked the beginning of the change in the UK: by the end of the 11th century, crime was no longer perceived as primarily as injurious to people, but rather was seen as an offence against the state.

The move back from this punitive mindset over the last quarter of a century is in part a return to the heart of faith traditions rooted in restoration, reconciliation and peaceful communy. In the book The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice2, a range of traditions and faiths are found to have such principles in common: Aboriginal spirituality, Buddhism, Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. The study explores how faith-based principles of reconciliation, restoration and healing might be implemented in pluralistic, multicultural and faith societies and more importantly how a restorative philosophy connects us all.

But it was an improbably small-scale development which had the greatest impact on restorative justice in the UK. In 1991 in the Australian town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, police led a successful local initiative in which officers who had been trained as facilitators, along with victims, offenders and their supporters, were invited to attend restorative conferences to discuss the impact of the crimes committed.

Not long afterwards, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation  Commission showcased the process in a deeply divided society on an international stage - as subsequently mirrored in the Northern Ireland peace process. Indeed, RJ now forms the main approach to youth crime in Northern Ireland, where it 'works extremely well ... in challenging young offenders to face up to the emotional and physical consequences of their actions,' according to justice minister David Ford.3

Now mainland UK appears to be following suit. In a keynote speech last year, Nick Herbert, minister for policing and criminal justice, stated unequivocally: 'What we want to see is restorative justice and restorative principles embedded in the criminal justice system as a whole and operating at every part of the criminal justice system.'4

My own experience is that restorative justice is far more than just another 'quick-fix' program. With its core principles of forgiveness and reconciliation, it is a deeply spiritual process which asks us to confront our inner demons and face the reality of our circumstances - to mine the deepest parts of our humanity and bring raw thoughts and feelings to the surface.

Surely this is a way of being, a culture in itself? A culture described by writer and practitioner Howard Zehr as one that 'changes lenses', echoing Proust when he suggested that the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Critics always seem to suggest that it is a soft option for the perpetrator, a distraction from real justice. But I believe restorative justice is much harder to swallow than following a more sanctioned punitive path. It is very draining and difficult to sit in front of the person you have harmed and listen to how it has affected them, emotionally, physically, psychologically and even financially.

Many perpetrators find that this is the turning point in their behavioural cycle and grasp the opportunity to change. As one perpetrator recently said: 'It made me realise how other people felt about what I had done and that's more important than how I felt. I now think more about the consequences to others of my actions. I've stayed out of trouble since then and my life has changed for the better.'

It's not just perpetrators who are punished for crime. As South Africa showed us, the victims of injustice will often need to confront their own self-hatred and anger before true freedom can come. 'When I talk of forgiveness,' writes Archbishop Tutu, 'I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person - a better person than the one consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you into a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it within yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on and even help the perpetrator become a better person too.'5

Without this opportunity, the victim often remains voiceless. 'In a court of law the victims of crime sit in the public gallery,' notes Will Riley, the victim of a violent burglary.6 'He, she, their family and friends are the most affected and yet they are the least involved in this process.' So to those who criticise I simply ask the question: 'If someone had harmed you or someone you loved, would you like an opportunity to tell that person how it has affected your life?'

There's increasing hard evidence to show that RJ makes financial sense too. The independent report from UK government's own £7-million, 7-year research programme delivered by Professor Joanna Shapland, found that in randomised control trials of RJ with serious offences (robbery, burglary and violent offences) by adult offenders:

 •    The majority of victims chose to participate in face-to-face meetings with the offender, when offered by a trained facilitator
 •    85% of victims who took part were satisfied with the process
 •    RJ reduced the frequency of re-offending, leading to £9 savings for every £1 spent on restorative justice

Depending who you ask, the reduction in the frequency of reoffending it revealed was between 14 and 27 per cent. The Restorative Justice Council and Victim Support claim that providing restorative justice in 70,000 cases involving adult offenders would deliver £185 million in savings to the criminal justice system over two years, through reductions in re-offending alone.7

So much for the quantative data - I prefer to tell stories. Stories of real people with real hurts whose lives have been transformed by having the courage to take part in restorative justice.

'When I was first approached about restorative justice I had my doubts,' admitted one victim of crime. 'It meant opening old wounds for me and facing difficult issues. I knew I had deep hurt with the situation but I also understood you have to face things to heal. Looking into his eyes and seeing the deep pain he was feeling facing up to his actions, I realised that with help over the years he had realised how deeply his actions had affected many lives and he will have to live with that. It is hard to forgive such an awful crime but restorative justice helped me do so.'

For victims, empowerment is paramount. They are often angry and humiliated by the events that have occurred. A good experience of restorative justice will address these feelings, emotions and hurts and enable them to move on constructively in a safe environment. 'For the first time ever I was able to talk about how I felt about being bullied,' said another victim. 'It made me strong again.'

In a sense, the rise of restorative justice is in keeping with the increasing use in schools and prisons of emotional intelligence in helping us to name and allow our emotions. It's not always possible, appropriate or necessary to organise a formal restorative conference, and outside of the prison system, many trained RJ practitioners find their skills are transferable in informal and work situations - with often life-changing results.

As community worker Pip Wilson prudently observes: 'If I am not in touch with the feelings and attitudes that are within me, it will be impossible for me to share them with you. If I am deceiving myself, I will certainly deceive you.'
In each situation requiring resolution, the basic questions we ask are as follows:

 •    What happened?
 •    What were you thinking?
 •    What were/are you feeling?
 •    Who do you think has been affected?
 •    What needs to happen/do you need to do now?

It isn't rocket science, but these restorative questions and processes represent an age-old practice that can be used for social change and lasting intervention. Many are seeing some remarkable outcomes with work colleagues, neighbours, in schools and communities. As one education-based practitioner put it: 'What I find most powerful about working in this way is that my job is no longer about telling children what to do and what not to do, but enabling them to talk, listen, negotiate and make agreements about the future.'

It's not about advising, fixing, manipulating - as a practitioner you have to surpress that incessant longing as a human being to make choices for someone, to advise, to help. In a restorative meeting you are merely a conduit. It's about empowerment, facilitation, allowing others to make their own agreements and decide their own fate.

All models of restorative justice need to be seen as part of a process of what communities need from justice: encouragement to take on their obligations for the welfare of their members, including both victims and offenders, and to foster the conditions that promote a healthy less fearful community. As Alex Boraine, vice-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, suggests 'the restorative approach is concerned with restoring the moral bond of community.'8

Sometimes this operates on an international scale with seemingly intractable conflicts. Jeff Halper suggests that a just peace for Israel will ultimately rely on 'acknowledgement, contrition, restorative justice and reconciliation with the Palestinians.'9 But more often this powerful process will work on a much smaller scale, between individuals, neighbours, even family members.

And that's what I'm witnessing today in this small room, after a year of careful preparation, as a young woman faces her dead father's brother across a table. After two hours, the meeting is drawing to a close. Tears have been shed, difficult questions answered, the hurt seemingly seeping from every pore.
And yet the aura in the room has changed. There seems to be much more light, much more hope. Maybe that's the gift of forgiveness, a second chance, a fresh start, a new day. As the final words are spoken a remarkable thing happens.

The young woman stands to leave and as she does so her uncle walks around the table and embraces her.

And through his tears he whispers: 'I love you'. n

1  Pinker S, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The decline of violence in history (Allen Books, 2011) p 543.
2  Michael L Hadley (ed.), The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (2001, State University of New York Press).
5  Tutu, D, No Future without Forgiveness (Rider, 1999).
8  Hadley M, The Roots of Restorative Justice (State University of New York Press, 2001) p9.
9  Halper J, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting dispossession, redeeming Israel (Pluto Press, 2008) p 233.

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