THE EDITOR: In these days, when it seems that in this land “only darkness falls from the wings of night,” there comes a ray of sunshine, penetrating the darkness and bringing us hope of a new dawn. Such hope came in the recent decision of Magistrate Lisa Singh-Phillip in the San Fernando Magistrates’ Court.
The magistrate decided to suspend sentencing and allow Nigel Jacob, the self-confessed drunk driver to satisfy her on how he would make good on his promise to pay for the repairs to the house he had damaged. The damage had occurred when Jacob and his co-worker’s car made a dramatic, unwelcome and destructive visit to the homes of Vijanti Seudath and Reena Sookhai. This decision was an example of restorative justice. The magistrate said she was minded to send Jacob to jail. This is not surprising, as in our justice system, punishment is uppermost in the mind of the judicial officer. Although Jacob did receive some punishment in the form of disqualification from obtaining a driver’s licence for three years and fines for driving without a licence and insurance, he was given an opportunity to compensate the complainants by repairing their home. The amount of compensation was outside the jurisdiction of the magistrate, so it was a voluntary offer by the defendant. What is important about this decision is that it accorded with the wish of those who had suffered the harm. The magistrate allowed the victims a say in how to repair the harm done to them. The persons harmed wanted their house repaired. The defendant promised to do so and the magistrate was willing to give him that opportunity.
Howard Zehr, the self-styled grandfather of restorative justice, explains that the criminal justice system views crime as a violation of the law, seeks to determine who is guilty of breaking a particular law and requires the guilty be punished. He says restorative justice sees crime as a violation of people and relationships and involves victims and offenders and their communities in an effort to put things right. Restorative justice asks: “Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? What can be done to make things right?”
As a licensed restorative justice trainer of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I have been training persons in Trinidad and Tobago for the past four years in how to facilitate a restorative conference. Sometimes I feel very discouraged about the ability of my fellow citizens to make that paradigm shift from being punitive to restorative. Although there are glimmers of hope in some systems which are partially restorative, as the Drug Treatment Court, Bail Boys programme, Victim and Witness Support Unit and the soon-to-be-instituted Peer Resolution Programme, the decision of Magistrate Singh-Phillip is a significant milestone on the road to a restorative justice system. Granted, the fines for the benefit of the State could have been eliminated, and all payments directed towards replacing furniture that had been destroyed and to repairing the house, but her decision is still a significant one, which I hope will be emulated by other judicial officers.
As a next step, perhaps the DPP and the Commissioner of Prisons can mount an enquiry into how many prisoners on remand or convicted are remorseful, willing to take responsibility for their crimes, and wish to make the wrongs they have done, right. Once the victims are willing, restorative conferences can be arranged with the offenders, victims and their respective supporters and members of the community. Conferences could be conducted in community centres with community police officers providing security. Just think how much money could be saved by lowering the prison population in that way. Surprisingly, research has shown that restorative justice achieves greater success with violent crime. Perhaps it is because “those forgiven much, love much.” It certainly would be a good way of debunking the growing feeling that, in this land, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison.”
HAZEL THOMPSON-AHYE via email