Not Just an Apology
Aug 26, 2010
Recently, I read the headline Apologising to victims will not reduce reoffending rates in a Google news alert. I quickly scanned the article. The author was very critical of restorative justice, questioning the possibility that restorative processes could help lower reoffending rates. In describing the criminal justice system, Mark Johnson says, “The job of the criminal justice system is not to be victim-centric but to be detached, clinical and fair.” He goes on to say, “…how can empowering victims cut reoffending? Only working with offenders can do that.”
As I finished reading his arguments, I had to agree with part of what Johnson said. But, I also realised that some of the criticism has a lot to do with a misunderstanding of restorative justice.
In illustrating his points, Johnson refers to the story of a fifteen year-old girl who came from a very bad family situation that included addictions and abuse. When she eventually became an offender by passing on the violence she had experienced to someone else, the teen was arrested and charged with a crime. She was then told that she could get a shorter sentence by writing an apology letter to the victim. Johnson describes the event with:
It was no surprise to anyone that ……. had offended. But now, surely, was the moment for the system to recognise her needs and help her to change. Instead, she was asked to write a letter of apology to her victim. I watched an RJ lobbyist ask her how she felt about that. [The young offender] looked confused. She said: "But what about me?"
He goes on to argue that the system failed the young offender by not recognising the drivers that led to her offending or providing the services to address those needs. I have to agree, but that is because restorative justice is about much more than simply giving victims an apology.
While restorative justice is about empowering the victim, it also helps to empower offenders as well. Part of that comes in helping the offender understand the impact of his/her actions on the victim, but also giving them the ability to “make amends” in some way. There is also an opportunity for an offender see that he/she has a place in the community and can be a part of that community. The “detached, clinical, and fair” criminal justice system has a difficult time doing this as it is based on exclusion and stigmatising shame.
I remember a young man convicted of armed robbery describing his conferencing experience with, “You don’t know what it means to have a member of the community listen to my story before making his decision.” The experience gave him some hope. It was also an opportunity to have someone listen to him. I think this is what the young offender from Johnson articles was crying out for when she asked, “But what about me?”
Being heard can be the first step in receiving the care and treatment an offender needs. Often, in my experience, those meeting in a restorative conference – offender, victim, family members, community representatives, etc – will discuss underlying issues to the offense. This is especially true for addictions. I’ve watched individuals who had a substance abuse problem admit that in conference and volunteer to seek treatment through AA or similar groups. I’ve also seen victims stop offenders from glossing over such issues and help dive into a much needed discussion.
At the same time, the understanding of impact of behaviour can be a motivator to identify and address underlying causes to offending. Anecdotal evidence from the Sycamore Tree Project® in New Zealand indicated that prisoners who had who had resisted rehabilitation programmes such as goal setting and drug treatment feel more ready to take part in them after participating in the in-prison restorative justice programme. The focus on accountability is not about telling the offender what to do. It is about helping him/her take understand that there are options both for making things right and for future decision making.
However, as Johnson points out, options have to be available. It’s one thing to recognise the underlying issues or talk about addictions. It is another to provide services and treatment to help offenders address those needs. Justice responses – whether a community sanction, incarceration, or even a restorative process – cannot help the individual if needed services are not available. This may mean effective and affordable substance abuse treatment. In some cases, it may mean trauma healing as well as other programmes such as anger management classes. Those support and rehabilitative services need to be provided as they will help offenders fulfil their agreements and desire for change. The strength of a restorative process lies in the offender being a part of the process that both identify the need for services and the decision to participate in them.
Unfortunately, restorative justice is often seen as simply an apology or a restitution payment. The relational elements that help build mutual understanding between victim and offender and community members can be left out. This is one reason we must be very careful how we describe restorative justice or define the outcome of a restorative process. When things become formulaic –such as simply writing the apology letter – then both the victim and the offender can be left asking, “But what about me?”