The four-hour seminars, organised by the Centro, were held in the capital cities of four of Panama’s provinces: Panama City, Chitre, Santiago, and David. Close to eighty representatives from the justice system attended each seminar. A representative from the prosecutor’s office opened the event with a few words about penal mediation and the legislative provisions for using such processes. In the city of David, the Fiscal Superior (more or less chief prosecutor) was very supportive of mediation and other processes for bringing together victims and offenders to respond to offending behaviour. He fully participated in the seminar with questions and comments encouraging those in attendance to discover how these processes could be used in their work.
Liliana Sanchez, from the Centro and project manager, provided an introduction to the project and the activities related to developing penal mediation. These include the further development of legislation, a standard of ethics for restorative practices, the implementation of a training programme, and various awareness raising activities for the justice system and the wider community.
Udsleryd de Luque, board chairperson of Prison Fellowship Panama, described the development of penal mediation in Panama starting with the first resolutions from the Ministerio Público in 1995 through changes in the penal code in 2008. She discussed the various regulations created over the years such as the voluntariness of mediation, the role of mediators as facilitators, and the importance of confidentiality in the process. Parties involved in a crime can request mediation by petitioning either the judge or the prosecutor in the case. The legislation outlines specific crimes that can be diverted from the system including some types of assault and property crimes.
If a specific case goes to mediation, the criminal justice process can be suspended for up to a month to allow time for the process. If the parties reach an agreement, the case is suspended up to a year to allow for completion of the agreement. Upon completion, the case is closed. If the parties do not reach an agreement or the agreement is not completed, then the case will continue in the court process without any negative effects on the offender in the criminal trial or at sentencing.
Representing Prison Fellowship International, I provided a definition of restorative justice focusing on the ideas of encounter, reparation, and transformation. I described the processes most closely identified with restorative justice – victim offender mediation, restorative conferencing, and circles. I provided international examples of how restorative processes are being used focusing on countries such as Colombia, Mexico and South Africa. I also described the various settings – prison and the community – in which restorative practices are used to respond to conflict and violence.
Seminar participants were interested in the creation of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters as well as in research on the effectiveness of restorative processes. I referred the group to the evaluation done by Sherman and Strang in 2007 that used 36 studies from different countries to compare the results of restorative processes with criminal justice interventions. The results of lower recidivism, reduced PTSD among victims, a greater sense by all parties that justice was done, and lowered costs were compelling to the seminar participants.
From the reaction of many of the participants, the seminars were successful in raising awareness of the various alternatives available for responding to crime in Panama. The Ministerio Público and the Centro will continue the awareness raising work as well as training of mediators into the end of the year. In describing the work ahead, Liliana Sanchez said that they couldn’t sit with their feet crossed after conducting the seminar. There is much to be done in terms of training and implementation of programmes. I look forward to seeing how the progress unfolds in Panama.