Monday, February 25, 2013

Restorative Justice, the Complexity of Crime, and the Victim

Caleb Ratzlaff is currently a student at the Institute for Christian Studies. Through working and volunteering for a number of different organizations, including the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, and Circles of Support and Accountability Hamilton, he has developed a passion for restorative justice. 

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson unveiled a plan Monday (Feb. 4) for 2013 that includes new legislation to toughen penalties for child sex offences, a newly-created Victims Bill of Rights, and improved protection for the public from those found not criminally responsible due to mental disorder.

Introducing tougher penalties for sex offenders and those found not criminally responsible are some of the easiest reforms a politician can make to the criminal justice system. This highly emotional issue, although important, distracts from systemic problems that lead to the inefficiencies Nicholson purports to be addressing, such as remand times, ballooning costs, mental illness, recidivism rates, double bunking etc.

The issue of a Victim’s Bill of Rights is, however, a more fruitful direction towards starting a conversation around justice reform. In its current state, the criminal code of Canada almost completely ignores the “victim.” Canada’s legal system has proven shamefully inept at providing emotional and practical support for individuals who have been victimized. The government can be commended for taking steps to address this issue.

However, by prioritizing the rights of the individual, whether the victim or the offender, the criminal code struggles to call attention to the fact that we as individuals live in community with others and that criminal acts violate these relationships. It fails to recognize the complexity of the relationship between the individual and his/her community.  I believe this is one of the reasons victims’ rights are often neglected in the first place. In contrast, restorative justice has the ability to address the complexity of crime while keeping the needs of the victim in the forefront.

By focusing on individual rights, the system deprives opportunities for the victim, offender, and community to reflect on their actions and give meaning to the events that lead to broken relationships. When we fail to reflect on these events, the criminal act is in danger of being forgotten, repeated, or worse, becoming meaningless. Times of crisis and conflict provide an opportunity for communities to work together, strengthening a sense of shared identity.

At times, it can be advantageous to remove an individual from society. But with soaring remand times and close to 80% of provincial inmates serving time for non-violent crime, it is very reasonable to imagine an alternative to imprisonment for many offenders.

Restorative justice offers a counterweight to the individualism of a rights based system. And it has the potential to provide a higher degree of justice for all involved with an emphasis on the needs of the victim. Restorative initiatives attempt to recognize all the relations effected by crime not simply the “criminals” relation to the state.

Restorative justice addresses the victim's need for asking and getting answers to questions, recognizing the harm, describing its impact, and discussing what can be done to repair it. These areas would not only address the inadequacies of a rights based system but could also help society understand and work towards improving a host of other issues - like the over representation of Aboriginals and mentally ill in our prison system.

Criminal justice reform requires a difficult discussion, which, unfortunately, makes garnering public support equally difficult. But the more questions we ask about it, the more likely that discussion is to gain some real momentum.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Stories from a Prophetic Tradition

By Allyson Carr, Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

What is the relation between a life of faith and the call to act justly? The Centre is beginning a project (about which you will hear more from time to time) with the CRCNA and another research centre called the Centre for Community Based Research on just such a question. In preparation for that project, several of us have been doing a lot of reading on the topic across many different sources--articles, books, other blogs, etc--anything that deals with the relation between faith and how it works itself out in response to questions of justice. (In this case, the faith we are speaking of is specifically Christian faith, though we are hoping to do a second inter-faith project on the same topic soon.) In doing the research, I have been struck by the really profound insights available in some of the Christian literature, both popular and academic, on the issue of justice and a life of faith. I have seen  impassioned calls for action, and deep, searching questions. I have seen policy platforms meant to move the governing powers to transformative engagement with vital issues of justice, and I have seen devotional materials that look at scriptural resonances of faith and justice. I have also run across ambivalence and confusion. However, most of the material I have found has demonstrated, to me at least, the potential that Christian faith can have for being a voice for justice--though such demonstration is situated in the sometimes negative or hostile relationship to justice that has also been demonstrated in times and places throughout Christianity's history, and which continues, in varied ways and places, even into today.

It was with that in mind that a particular paragraph I came across struck me. The author was speaking at the time of the "disestablishment" of the Church; of its decrease in "numbers, influence, power and place in society"--this is of course happening in some denominations, and some places, more than in others. But, the author went on to say, "Despite all this, I believe that our being disestablished is a good thing. Christian theology and practice have always found solid and inspiring roots in the prophetic tradition of the Older Testament and in the Jesus movement of the Newer Testament. We are at our best when we exemplify these approaches to being faithful to the God we know in Jesus."

The author who wrote this, former Moderator of the United Church Bill Phipps, makes a very important point here, as he discusses what he means by speaking of the opportunities disestablishment offer: "as a disestablished minority we no longer need to feel obligated to defend the status quo... We can freely ponder honestly what the God of compassion, justice and peace would have us do and be." (Both of these quotes can be found on p. 141 of his book Cause for Hope.) The roots of justice and faith, if we look in the Old Testament prophetic tradition and in the person of Jesus in the Gospel accounts is not necessarily straightforward, nor (it must be said up front) always oriented toward peace. But there are, it seems to me, some over-arching themes that one can pick up. The prophets, and Jesus, tend to be known for speaking to the powers that be and calling them to task--though Jesus did this more by his actions than with words, if we are talking about the Roman powers. The religious powers of his time and place felt the full brunt of his words, however. Think too of the prophet Nathan, who used a story about taking resources from the disadvantaged--that of the poor man's lamb stolen and slaughtered to feed the rich man--in order to confront King David about the murder of Uriah. (2 Samuel 12:1-10; there are many dimensions of this complex story we could address, but for now I will leave them aside.) The examples we glean from Jesus' words and actions, and from the words and actions of the prophets, are telling. They draw on the tradition, and the law, prior to them to address those in power and point out with conviction where they have acted unjustly.

This, it strikes me, is one of the greatest things that the Biblical tradition, in its Jewish and Christian forms, has to offer. There seems to be an understanding, and a divine mandate, to address those in power when they are not doing right. Has the Christian tradition always done this? We must answer, no. Sometimes hierarchies within Christianity have even been the powers doing significant and drastic wrong. But voices speaking from and within the Christian tradition have spoken to address wrong before, and are doing it now in many places, and can do it in the future. We have the resources in this faith tradition to understand the call to justice and just living as a call that comes out of a faithful response to God. Not everyone is called to be an Elijah or a John, or an Anna. But, if we act as followers of Christ, we act to bring compassion, food, comfort, hope and change in this world, on our streets. If we act as followers of Christ, we work to stop mob "justice" (John 8:1-11); we work to heal (take your pick; there's plenty of stories of Jesus healing!); we work to include children and not push them away to the margins of society (Luke 18:15-16).

The stories we have in this tradition, even as varied and sometimes violent as they are, provide us with a wealth of concrete examples of just and unjust actions. They are examples on which we can draw to discern the direction to take in living responsively and faithfully to the call issued by Christ to follow him. Learning which stories (from both the Old and New Testament) are examples of faithful action and which are stories of unfaithful action is not always the easy choice one might think. But in living a life of faith that is reflective of Christ's call, it is important that we examine the resources we have, and what calls they place on us.