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Restorative justice can be a useful tool

June 16, 2009

From the Editorial in The Times of Malta:  Appeals made some time ago by experts from the
Oasi Foundation in Gozo and the state-owned Sedqa agency urging the
government to set up a specialist drug court to help non-violent drug
offenders rehabilitate themselves deserve the utmost consideration.

It is a sad reality that more and more people, especially the young
are getting ensnared by addictions such as gambling, alcohol and drugs.
Dependence leads to financial difficulties, which, in turn, and too
often pave the way to petty crime and worse.

Undoubtedly, justice demands that offenders cannot get off
scot-free. Yet, experience shows that the present penal system is
ineffective and often counter-productive. Incarceration is costly in
more ways than one, even if one were to ignore the fact that drug
addiction in prison is rife. Imprisonment is just a punishment. Too
often it is not a deterrent, let alone a route for reintegrating
offenders into society.

The prison system works only as long as the criminal is behind bars.
On re-insertion into society, many relapse again into addiction and
crime. With a prison becoming a “college of crime”, this happens with a
vengeance. Both the offenders and society lose out.

Sedqa clinical director George Grech illustrated the futility of the
situation by pointing out that there are situations where a person who
was rehabilitated and back on track in society had to face a case in
court for an offence that had occurred years earlier.

The concept of a specialist drug court is an overdue step in a new
direction that makes a clear distinction between retributive justice
that just focuses on punishing an offender and restorative justice that
has a deeper purpose. Restorative justice recognises that a criminal
offence causes a wound in society and the purpose of the penal process
is to heal the breach, redress matters and restore good relationships.
Restorative justice is based on the fundamental Christian principle
that believes in redemption based on awareness, penance and

Drug courts abroad respect this principle and operate under a very
specific framework that combines intensive judicial supervision,
mandatory drug testing, escalating sanctions and treatment to help
substance abusing offenders break the cycle of addiction and the crime
that accompanies it.

In other words, the setting up of such a court, besides being
coupled with addiction rehabilitation systems that are already in
place, involves restitution programmes. These programmes are usually
fashioned on schemes where the offender is required to make restitution
to the victim, or if not the case, to the community. The adoption of
specialist drug courts confirms the reality that this new method in
criminal justice makes sense at all levels. Besides being grounded on
Christian principles and common sense, it is also cost-effective in the
long term.

Its successful implementation would not only reap benefits in the
handling of drug addicts but could also revolutionise the way society
deals with crime and punishment.

We are not inventing the wheel. Elsewhere, public-spirited people
have already examined the underlying principles and worked out such
schemes in their communities and with success.

It is in our country’s interest that we take the initiative and
provide the necessary resources to make restorative justice work as
effectively as possible.


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