I thought about this recently when I read a report from Prison Fellowship Liberia describing the visit of medical professionals from the organisation Humedica International. The doctors and one nurse provided medical care to prisoners and prison officers in six different facilities over a two week period.
Among those treated was a prisoner carried to the medical facility by fellow prisoners. The young man was unconscious and the doctors couldn’t find a heartbeat. The doctors took swift actions to try to revive the young man. The volunteer describes the surprise of prison officers, prisoners, someone from the Red Cross and other members of Prison Fellowship as they watched the intense and professional efforts the doctors took in the attempt to save one life. The report describes the scene this way, “That particular day, he had become ‘someone’, an important person whose life was as valuable in the eyes of the doctors as any other life.”
As I read the report, I wondered what the criminal justice system would look like if we saw every offender and every victim as “someone” worth saving. How would we respond to those who have committed crimes? How would we treat the needs of those who have been harmed by crime? What would our institutions and processes look like?
I think the philosophy of restorative justice provides some guidance. For those harmed by crime, the system would have structures in place to not only acknowledge the harm to them but to help them find the services and activities they need to deal with that harm. The voice of victims would be heard not just as a witness for the prosecution or in a statement at sentencing but truly heard. And, if appropriate, they would always have the voluntary choice to participate in a restorative process that would inform decisions in how the case is resolved. They would be friends, neighbours, and colleagues that we seek to support and walk alongside in their journeys toward wholeness.
For those who have committed crimes, it would mean first and foremost treating them like human beings capable of making different decisions. This means working with them, providing opportunities for them to understand the harm they have caused, and helping them to identify the underlying causes for their behaviour. Ideally, when appropriate, they would have the opportunity to participate in a restorative process where they could directly address the harm they have caused and take active steps to make amends to the people they have affected.
For those cases where incarceration is necessary, the system would focus on addressing root causes instead of simply punishing offenders. Such a system would incorporate trauma healing, addiction treatment, and opportunities for both educational and vocational training as well as providing humane living conditions. The idea would be to provide pathways for the offender to become “someone” in our businesses, places of worship and communities.