Merciful justice is a view of justice whereby the notion of (just) retribution is not only perceived as being one-sided and punitive but also as restorative, personal and covering the full width of community life. That is the reason for the addition ‘merciful’ which puts justice in a whole new light. It spurs us on to put one of the good works into practice, that of visiting prisoners (bible book Matthew chapter 25) Visiting means meeting with, it means seeing someone as a person not just as an offender who has committed a punishable offence. 

It is inherent to the Christian viewpoint that the fundamental worth of a person is not lessened by a crime, no matter how serious. It is against this background that we make the effort to offer prisoners and their families a positive outlook for the present and the future. Ideally the past might then also be dealt with in a suitable and mature manner. This fits in well with the Good Lives-concept.

Summing up, merciful justice can convey an interpretation of retribution with numerous facets. It recognizes the punitive perception of retribution but at the same time provides scope for restorative action.

....How does Gevangenenzorg Nederland give a practical interpretation to this concept of merciful justice? The answer is simple, by volunteers visiting prisoners and conversing with them. Under the guidance of professionals a national network of nearly 400 volunteers visits prisoners and TB patients. After release there is also an after-care period of at least six months. This system depends on mutual respect and trust and there are no judicial demands involved. Volunteers are also active in the care for the prisoners’ families. As well as this one-to-one care there are also restorative justice programmes available for group sessions; the SOS course is one of these, more details of which can be found below.

....During or after the course various options for after-care are offered. Frequently it is Judicial Pastoral Care or a Behaviourist that takes up or maintains contact with the participant giving special consideration to the further development of restoration in his personal life. For actual restorative mediation a referral to Slachtoffer in Beeld (Victim in the Picture) is possible. It is a pity that this form of mediation can only be initiated where a punishable offence with a prosecution case number is concerned. We regularly come across prisoners who have things they want to put right with family or friends and it is regrettable that for them there are as yet no opportunities for restoration dialogue in such situations.

A third form of after-care is, at the request of the participant, setting up a visitor contact with a volunteer from Gevangenenzorg Nederland which is aimed at support and follow-up. The needs of each participant are considered as well as what would be of further assistance to him after following the restorative programme. In that way our aims are dovetailed into their aims: A future for people with a past. That too is merciful justice.

Note: This is excerpted from an English translation of a Dutch article originally appearing in ‘Tijdschrift voor Herstelrecht’ (‘Journal for Restorative Justice’).

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