Our present justice system is based on the idea that punishment will cause people to become better members of society. As far as I can see, there is little evidence that this is true.
Of course, some people who are convicted of a crime do not offend again, so it may appear that a term in prison changed their behavior—but we don’t know how many of them would have committed another crime even if they had not been incarcerated. The fact that two-thirds of inmates do re-offend suggests that it is not because of the system. What other other institution has a 65–70% failure rate but still continues on the same path?
The Ministry of Justice in the U.K. has just issued a major report titled, ‘Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders’.
‘These reforms are radical and necessary. Despite record spending and the highest ever prison population we are not delivering what really matters: improved public safety through more effective punishments that reduce the prospect of criminals reoffending time and time again.’
Restorative justice, which Sylvia Clute terms unitive justice, goes beyond reforming the way punishment is dispensed—its goal is not to affix blame or punish the offender, it is to restore balance; it seeks to heal the victim, the community, and the offender. This idea of healing the offender is, I think, its most important contribution, because it recognizes that something must be wrong for people to harm others. By healing the offender, real change becomes possible.
Perhaps this is why offenders who experience an effective restorative justice process usually do not re-offend. In fact, some restorative justice systems reportedly have recidivism rates in the range of 5–10—meaning a success rate about three times better than the prevailing system. But even when the system does not succeed with the offender, it is almost universally praised by the victims and other community members.
How can we progress towards becoming a more enlightened society unless we abandon the failed goal of apportioning blame and punishment in favor or restoring the balance and helping people contribute to a stronger community?
‘Circles’, a beautiful film by Shanti Thakur, explores restorative circles being used in Canada. [Produced for the National Film Board of Canada] See www.shantithakur.com/circles.html
Sylvia Clute’s term ‘unitive’ justice, is not only a nice offset to the notion of ‘punitive’ justice but implies that some of the same practices can be used to build unity and prevent problems, not just provide a more genuine justice.
The International Institute of Restorative Practice offers Masters programs and various training, workshops, and conference on restorative justice and related topics. Also see <safersanerschools.org>, <realjustice.org>