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.


  1. Thanks so much for this post, Caleb. I really appreciate your focus on the communal aspect of both justice and injustice. Since the broader community is affected by a given crime, it makes sense that this community should also become part of the process of justice and healing.

    To be honest, I'm not overly familiar with the in's and out's of our justice system. When you speak about "restorative justice," are you talking about an alternative to imprisonment as a way of dealing with crime? and what do you see as the major obstacles (I'm sure there are many) to bringing this kind of justice into our system?

  2. Great questions Carolyn. I'm not very well acquainted with the in's and out's of our justice system either. Many RJ initiatives do offer an alternative to imprisonment but you're right to point out that what I'm really trying to communicate is an alternative to punitive approaches. Here's a really quick and helpful break down of RJ principles and indicators:

    Some of the big obstacles for bringing RJ into the mainstream system would probably include things like: the demonization of criminals and inmates; the media’s focus on sensational stories that do little but spread fear; a consumerist mindset that wants instant solutions to crime; vote pandering by politicians; the lack of knowledge about the connection between crime, poverty and society at large; finally, RJ initiatives depend on a robust civil society.

    I’m sure there are many other obstacles.

    1. Thanks, Caleb! that's helpful. ya, those are some pretty major obstacles, but it's important stuff to think and talk about!

    2. You've listed some big obstacles for bringing Restorative Justice models into the mainstream, Caleb, and since they are big, and this is still a very important issue, I was wondering if I could pick up on one or two of them?

      You note that there is a lack of knowledge about the connections between crime, poverty, and society at large, and I think this is quite true. I also think it can often lead to one of the other obstacles you raised: the demonization criminals and inmates. Without making excuses for violent behaviour, there is a strong sense that a lot of violent crime (and even non-violent crime, perhaps) is grounded in the experience of other social problems, such as poverty, homelessness, and hunger--or even other issues that are more difficult to see but still very operative, such as domestic violence and child abuse. The effects of such issues as not having enough shelter, food or financial resources, or having previously experienced violence at the hands of someone who should, relationally speaking, have been trustworthy, are not always direct, though they can be. Not every person who commits a violent crime does so as a result of having experienced violence in the past, or of not having enough to provide the necessities of life. But in a community where such problems exist unaddressed, a context of tolerating or turning a blind eye to social problems is created and nurtured. Suddenly it doesn't seem so abnormal when violence happens, or when someone goes hungry or has no home. In such a context, even while mugging someone (for example) is illegal, if it is understood as somehow normalized by the community, then a sense of not caring about one's fellow begins to become ingrained. And when that happens in the context of a lack of communal resources, or a widening gap between those who have plenty and those who don't have enough or are really struggling to make ends meet, it is not surprising that crime flourishes.

      I think one of the natural, knee-jerk responses to experiencing or hearing about a violent crime is to demonize the perpetrator. The violence of the crime, and the crime itself, is rightly rejected, and in so doing, the person who committed it gets lumped in with their actions. But, even while I believe that people need to be held responsible for their actions, I also believe we need to see people in the context in which those actions occurred, and ask what our real ultimate goal is. Is our ultimate goal punishing crime, or healing society? If the former, then we should continue along the path we are on, responding to crimes as they happen without overly much regard for preventing them or changing the circumstances that help produce them. If, however, our goal is the latter--healing society--then I think we need to change the way we look at responding to crime, and restorative justice has some promising abilities to do so.

      But do you think this question (are we looking to punish crime or heal society) is a good way of looking at shaping a response to the issues?

    3. You're right to point out these connections. We could probably boil the list of obstacles down to two or three major themes.

      Your framing of the question is very helpful. Although popular media loves to play on the idea of punishment, it's interesting that this really isn't the aim of the current system. CSC stands for Correctional Services Canada. I've often wondered what we mean by "correctional"? Who or what are we "correcting" with this “service”? Foucault addresses this question in Discipline and Punish. His concept of knowledge as power reminds us that we should never lose sight of the question: what "problem" is being "corrected" and why?

      Do you ever wonder what facebook is "correcting" with all the knowledge they collect on how we interact with their site? I had to delete my fb account after reading Discipline and Punishment…. about a month latter, I reactivated my account.

    4. Foucault's question needs to be kept in mind when participating both a punitive and restorative approaches to crime. However, the current system locates the "problem" that needs correcting in the criminal, ignoring (for the most part) both systemic problems and the harm caused by crime - issues that you take up in your comment above.