Love creates space for restorative justice

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Barred heartOne of the notable developments in the justice system in recent years has been the attention given to the victims of serious crime. Those directly affected and their relatives have been given a chance to speak and so to influence sentencing. As a result the consequences of crime receive wider publicity.

This development has been welcome. By highlighting in human terms the human consequences for those affected by crime it invites the court, the perpetrator and the community to recognise its seriousness. It shows that no crime is an event without consequence but brings hurt and loss to individuals and to different groups beyond the immediate victim. The response of the community to crime must take this into account..

The attention to victims has come at a time when political attitudes to crime and sentencing have hardened. Statutory minimum sentences, the reduction of parole and the loss of judicial flexibility embody an emphasis on the retributive aspect of punishment, with corresponding less emphasis on the place of rehabilitation and restoration. Imprisonment is seen as the principal way of safeguarding the community.

As a result jailes are becoming more crowded with less funding and opportunity for rehabilitation.

Although imprisonment is an essential part of any response to crime, this emphasis fails to serve well the needs of victims of crime or of the community. These are inextricably interwoven with the needs of the perpetrators.

The challenge for all affected is to find the inner space to address these needs. Crime restricts space: the inner freedom we need to take responsibility for our lives and the consequences of what we have done, to accept our predicaments, and to recognise that we are vulnerable to events and people over which we have no control.

This space is crowded out by the anger, fear, guilt and horror that we naturally feel when confronted with the crime we have done, suffered or seen enter our world. In addressing crime, we need to restore and amplify that space so that people can find healing, make changes to their lives and make rational decisions.

The prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators help restore space to victims and the community, restoring their faith in an ordered world. The opportunity for victims to describe their hurt and have it taken into account in sentencing also gives space. It affirms the wrongness of the crime and ensures others will be protected.

But many victims discover that no finite punishment can ever satisfy their anger, make up for their loss or guarantee their future security. The hope frequently expressed that the perpetrator will rot in hell reflects their insatiable desire for retribution, but also the hell into which the crime has plunged them.

Anger is a natural response when we are affected by crime. But ultimately we find space only when we let go of our rage. In many cases we can only do this when those who have wronged us feel remorse for what they have done. To that extent the space for freedom of the victim depends on the space found by the perpetrator.

That is true also for the community. The anxiety about crime that afflicts society can be assuaged only by assurance that the community is safe. Such assurance will not be be believed unless people turn from crime to sociable living in the community.

But contrary to popular opinion the imposition of harsher sentences under more rigorous conditions make it more, not less, likely that people will reoffend. More public funds then need to be spent on keeping more people locked up, with the result there is little left to fund counselling and transition back into the community.

The stigma of prison translates easily into self-loathing among people whose sense of themselves is already weak. Harsh physical conditions and natural resentment intensify self-blame and hopelessness. Self-preoccupation leaves little room for consideration of others, imaginative identification with the victims of their crimes and for reflecting on how they'd like to live. So they return to the patterns of life that led them to prison.

For the good of victims and of the community prisoners need to find the space in which they can recognise and feel remorse for the harm they have done, reflect on and change the patterns of life that contributed to the crime, and come to act accountably. To develop this space of freedom is not easy. It demands building relationships in an environment that encourages self-reflection and self-confidence.

Good relationships are built on love. If they are to change people need to be valued and loved as persons. When we remove judicial discretion, the realistic possibility of parole, and place people in overcrowded and under-serviced prisons, we measure them as things.

To include love in penal justice may seem impossible. But recently in court a man was sentenced to jail for dangerous driving that led to the death of a young woman. Her father then embraced the driver. The health of the victims of crime and of the community depends on people trying to make the impossible possible.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Barred heart image from Shutterstock

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Existing comments

In my career I dealt with many ex-prisoners attempting to return to the workforce. Some of them had what can only be described as horrific lives. At work we were once privileged to hear an ex-prisoner speak about what jail is really like. A GP who worked for what was then the Department of Social Security also told us that most prisoners had some sort of serious psychological problem. There appear to be few opportunities within prison for anyone to redeem themselves and change their lives. I welcome victim impact statements because crime is a social issue and I think offenders sometimes have no idea how they affect others. Of course there are some real recalcitrants. You would have to deal with each case as it came up: there is no "one size fits all" solution. I think we still have a very 18th Century British approach to crime, punishment and rehabilitation. We need to change this. We need to attack the problems in society which lead to family dysfunction and violence which often lead to crime. That national debate about the sort of society we want, which should genuinely involve the whole community, not just politicians, is urgently needed.
Edward Fido | 21 May 2014


Thank you Andrew for this timely article. Yesterday after a morning of retributive justice in a HK court, I penned a similar reflection to yours. See May 21 menu of www.v2catholic.com
John Wotherspoon | 21 May 2014


At aged 29, my beautiful son, Simon Francis, was murdered, bashed brutally to death and his body thrown in a weir to drown. When parole was looming, his killers found God and wrote to say they were sorry. This was ignored by my family. I spoke at both their paroles and pleaded not to release them because of the numerous offfences committed while incarcerated. These pleas were ignored. Both have been back in gaol and the latest and worse one of the killers has another ten years sentence because he tried to kill a policeman and the other is now up on an attempted mansalughter charge. The community has suffered, I still suffer. I can't say much for restorative justice other than the offices kept in touch with me and I appreciated that. My home has a large wall around it with a gate because I have lived in fear. While there is one convert to christianity and I wish there were more, people look at restorative justice as some kind of a magic bullet. The sentences are not long enough for criminals, judges are weak and lawyers make a fortune.
shirley McHugh | 22 May 2014


I don't know how Shirley McHugh feels because such a terrible thing has never happened to me. I can see that the pain for her never goes away. However, I'd like to support Edward Fido in saying that "You would have to deal with each case as it came up: there is no 'one size fits all' solution". In any case, the issue of parole is a different one from the issue of restorative justice and rehabilitation. I don't think the latter are practised much at all in Australia. How long can we sustain current practices which just don't work?
Joan Seymour | 22 May 2014


Thanks Andy! I once saw the TV program of a restorative justice process. The supposed perpetrator had been jailed for 17 years. On a retrial he was freed and the session took place after that. It was excellent to view the photos of the car accident and how the lady had been accosted by another person. Not the man who endured 17 years in prison. I was struck by her father's comment after the session: You didn't bring my girl home. I was led to reflect on how deep the ill feeling goes and how hard it is to forgive. I'm sure you would remember the case. Set in Perth.
Marie | 23 May 2014


"If they are to change, people need to be valued and loved as persons." How true, Andrew. Systems, be they legal or other,can at best only deliver the conditions for this to happen - but it is a start.
John | 24 May 2014


I recently had the privilege of being a participant in a Sycamore Tree Program - a restorative justice program which asks prisoners to reflect on their crimes in the company of victims (not those of the participating prisoners). It was for me, and I think for them, an extraordinarily humanizing venture. Some of the impacts of the Project for me were: • I was deeply moved, at times, at how a victim’s story and a resident’s story are two sides of the same coin of suffering. • I was amazed at the complexity of each participant’s life and have come to the conclusion that each person is more than the sum of any crime. • I felt the palpable spirituality of a few; witnessed compassion regardless of one’s situation; enjoyed seeing and hearing how much talent resides inside prison walls. • I now know this restorative justice project can reveal both prisoners and victims deepest concerns and love for our families and friends. Andrew is right. Love creates a space for all. If you are a victim of crime and would like to participate in the Sycamore Tree Program, please contact Prison Fellowship Australia.
Jane Anderson | 24 May 2014


Clearly ,simple imprisonment achieves only prevention. This article speaks of space for remorse. But perpetrators have a mind set usually that prevents this ability to be able to offer remorse, to be able to really reflect, to be able to truly understand what they have perpetrated. NO matter the length of psychotherapy. Restortative justice requires equal power balance, equal mental and psychological acceptance, equal offer and acceptance. This is naive to expect when it comes to power perpetrators who destroy by way of non reflection. This scenario is highly complex and can be dealt with only on an individual basis.
Jennifer Herrick | 26 May 2014


This is an article I didn't read last year as I was away at the time. As always, it's interesting, too, to read the comments and Jennifer Herrick's comment is a stand-out for me. Both victim(s) and perpetrator have to reach a place where sober reflection is possible. Both victim(s) and perpetrator have to reach a place where pain does not have primacy. A difficult place to reach. And it's never reached by coercion, use of power or manipulation of either party.
Pam | 08 January 2015


As a victim of crime in my childhood I experienced being locked in in the anger and fear of my family. These constraints choked me and when I turned 18 I confronted my assailant to take his measure. It was on an impulse but it enabled to reclaim my right as a person - not just as a victim - and to decide how to live from then on. I believe that I learned forgiveness then because there was really no other option, only forgiveness relieved me and helped me to get on. My family was shoked but accepted that this had been my own decision. I believe this action greatly helped me in my life.
Eveline Goy | 10 January 2015


This is an excellent article. From my present experience as a prison chaplain I can confirm everything Fr. Andy has written.
Brian Johnstone | 13 January 2015


Very good article by Andrew Hamilton. I wish to put my limited understanding of PT Stress Disorder. Victims have a horrific time, especially relatives of murder victims. Not enough recognition of this problem exists & little or no redress has been done here in past, either for victims or even less for perpetrators who are in prison. As Eveline wrote in her comments, courage is needed to face & forgive your past, both the perpetrators & your own distorted self-blame in many cases. As well, perpetrators often (90% +) would have huge PTSD issues of their own, usually from very disfunctional early family upbringings. This is a very challenging area to address & one where both parties can only be healed in practical rehab and counselling programs, by and through the holy Spirit present in caring counsellors.
John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 13 January 2015


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