When it comes to the issue of how criminals should earn forgiveness from their victims, there is divided opinion in society. Some people feel that criminals don’t deserve to be forgiven; that a criminal’s only option is to suffer in prison or to stand before his God and answer to that higher power. Others want to see criminals forced to pay back society in the form of community service. However, the concept of restorative justice, which involves criminals and their victims being brought together to discuss the crime in question, is an option that is becoming more and more popular.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice is a process by which criminals and victims are brought together in the company of a mediator. According to restorativejustice.org.uk, “In criminal justice, restorative processes give victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to their questions, and an apology. Restorative justice holds offenders to account for what they have done, helps them understand the real impact of what they’ve done, to take responsibility and make amends.”
Restorative justice is used in a number of areas, including schools and communities, to resolve conflict. However, it is perhaps best known as an option for helping victims to come to terms with the actions of the perpetrator of the crime against them and to allow the perpetrator to focus on the impact of his or her crime in the hope that it will prevent repetition in the future. It is not supposed to be a replacement for the criminal justice system; it is something that happens over and above a prison sentence or other criminal justice proceeding.
What are the benefits?
There are a number of potential benefits to restorative justice if it is carried out successfully. The obvious benefit is to the victim and the victim’s family, who, provided that the offender is prepared to be honest and show remorse, should be able to get some form of closure on what happened to them. Forgiving a faceless person for a crime that is incomprehensible can be hard, but hopefully, after hearing an explanation from a real person, that process will be easier. Criminals should also benefit from restorative justice, allowing them to see first-hand the grief and hardship that their actions have caused.
However, the implications of restorative justice could be much wider than that. As restorativejustice.org points out, crimes often affect more than just the victim and criminal; it affects the families of those involved and often the community as a whole. In the restorative justice process, communities can also become involved, which allows them to have a say in the criminal justice process, rather than leaving it to government bodies to make all the decisions.
Does it actually work?
There is still ongoing evaluation of restorative justice processes and how they affect the victim, criminal and wider community in the long run. This is obviously very difficult to measure. What the victim takes away from the process is also a very personal thing; some victims may be haunted by the fact that they have met the person who sinned against them, whereas others may be relieved to put a face to the name and action. However, there are examples of victims who have met criminals of very serious crimes and have been able to find some peace as a result. Restorativejustice.org.uk quotes the father of a son who was murdered by a gang. He was eventually contacted by one of the gang and a restorative justice session was set up. As a result, he said:
“My wife and I left that meeting feeling like a weight had been lifted. We know that without the help of restorative justice this would never have happened. We would say to any victim, be open to the possibility of meeting your offender face to face. You don’t have to shake their hand or care for them. It won’t take the pain away nor is it a quick fix, but just hearing the words ‘I’m sorry’ is a start to moving forward. For us it was a life changing event.”
How to arrange a restorative justice session
Every country will have a number of organisations that can help offenders and victims set up a mediated meeting and can be easily traced by doing a Google search or by contacting an umbrella restorative justice body, such as restorativejustice.org.uk in the UK. It is a voluntary process, which means that no one party can be forced to attend against its will. However, the mediating body will make contact on behalf of the enquiring party to discuss options for meeting and to find out whether the relevant parties are ready to meet face to face. Sometimes, the exchange of letters may be a starting place. Once the meeting is set up, the mediator will ensure that it is conducted in a safe environment and manner.
Of course, the major downfall with restorative justice is that criminals may not want to earn forgiveness from their victims, in which case, there is little that can be done. However, the positive results that have been seen in some cases show that there is hope for the future and increasing awareness should ensure that those criminals who do want to earn forgiveness should be able to do so.