Restoring Justice


Depending on the dominant construction of reality, the paradigms of social values are set. As per the current paradigm of justice being derived from our emphasis on crime and punishment, it is retributive justice that is clearly the model and framework of action. Retribution is based on the principle of vengeance and gives greater importance to the effect of crime on the state, because the transgression of social boundaries that the state values immensely is the focus of punishment, and the effect of that punishment is to re-establish the socio-political order that has been disrupted by the transgression. Therefore, both the victim and perpetrator are removed from the equation—the perpetrator is placed at a level lower to the state, while the victim is believed to have been dispensed justice to once the punishment is delivered. In an effort to propose an alternative justice system, scholars like Ruper Ross and Howard Zehr have developed a framework of restorative justice that aims to truly work in the arena of peace by foregrounding the victim, the perpetrator of violence, and the community while working for the resolution of crime. Instead of a destructive, isolationist solution which treats the criminal as an atomized unit by restricting him/her to a prison, restorative justice works for reintegration, but on the terms of the victim. The victim’s needs, and the relationship developed between the victim and perpetrator are primary, displacing the authority of the state to redefine crime and punishment. In his book Changing Lenses : A New Focus for Crime and Justice, Howard Zehr uses values derived from interpretations of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible in the form of the shalom and covenant systems of practice, to arrive at a restorative justice schema.

Unlike retributive justice, which limits the role of the victim to the accusation and testimony, and leaves everything else to the hands of the justice system, restorative justice seeks active participation from the victim at all levels of decision-making. This helps to avoid the multiple victimizations the victim might be otherwise forced to undergo because of the community, media, police or judicial system etc., because all these players are regarded secondary to the victim’s needs. Crime is essentially a violation, and this violation can be reconciled with through a system based on problem-solving, search for commonalities, making restoration and reparation to the victim central, keeping the victim aware and well-informed, making the offender take responsibility, restoring a sense of balance, emphasizing mutuality of cooperation, and understanding justice as a process rather than an end-goal. The conception of guilt and debt which are often used for reverse victim shaming and blaming are concretized into factors in the victim-offender relationship that can be overcome through reparations. By addressing the major gaps in the retributive justice model, especially with respect to repeat offenders, it views the prison system as a failure in terms of correcting behaviour because it teaches patterns of violence for the ‘survival of the fittest’. This socialisation into violence, often in the form of physical and sexual abuse, ingrains a strong dominant-submissive power dynamic, encourages gang violence within and outside the prison walls, and fails to teach the criminal to adapt to the ordinary world upon release. The emphasis on punishment also fails to make the prisoner feel accountable for his/her actions, because accepting crimes and their consequences on the victims is essential for criminals to understand the nature of their actions and take responsibility for them. On the other hand, in restorative justice, “Crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance.” (Zehr)

This vision goes beyond the pleasure and pain dichotomy of retributive justice which reduces human behaviour to simplistic patterns of crime as instinctive behaviour—crime leads to pleasure in some form, so an aversion of that crime should take place through negative reinforcement by creating pain via punishment. Nils Chirstie explains the need for a paradigm shift in the realm of justice by saying, “A warrior wears armor, a lover, flowers. They are equipped according to expectations of what is to happen, and their equipment increases chances that their expectations will prove right.” So, if the concept of crime is approached through revenge, then the crime cycle can never be broken. But, if the expectations of how crime, justice, victimhood etc. are to be described change, will we expect imprisonment as the only solution?

– Contributed by Tript

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