THIS month marks the 20th anniversary of TT's restorative justice initiative, which promised a new and better way to deal with crime.
Needless to say, restorative justice has crept along bolstered by more lip service than action, which is typical for most grand declarations in this country.
But restorative justice is important. Instead of the traditional form of criminal punishment, which means tossing someone in prison to serve time, we would move (when possible) to a system where inmates sentenced for crimes have opportunities to pay back society.
Retired prisons commissioner Gerard Wilson, an avid supporter of restorative justice, described how this works.
“Say you have a case where someone breaks into a school and steals a computer. Instead of just serving a prison sentence – if convicted – the court could see what the school needs as repayment. Maybe the school needs painting, and he could do that.
"The school saves money by not having to pay someone to do the painting; the person who committed the crime gets to do something meaningful to make up for his actions. Everyone feels some semblance of justice being served.”
Restorative justice favours self-discipline over punishment.
In this country, this is a difficult concept for many people, who favour harsh sentences, preferably with hard labour. But locking someone behind bars with no opportunity to take responsibility for their actions does nothing to mitigate crime.
Restorative justice can provide a tangible connection between the victim and the perpetrator, which can mitigate hatred, disgust, anger and hurt. It can serve as a step in the healing process.
For the most part, restorative justice needs to be implemented at the sentencing stage of a crime. It requires knowing something about what skills the person sentenced to prison can provide and what needs the victim has.
First and foremost, victims of crime want justice. But what does that look like, when we strip away our anger, disappointment, depression and fear?
The beauty of restorative justice – if it is applied correctly – is that it mends broken links within communities.
There is such a disconnect between those of us in the privileged class who are victims of crime and the desperate young men and women in the culture of poverty who turn to gangs and crime for a sense of belonging and economic survival.
We don’t understand how that happens; they don’t understand there are alternatives to their choices.
Restorative justice allows these marginal citizens to make amends for their crimes in a manner that provides a sense of confidence and dignity. It sends an invaluable message: I know I have done wrong. I am willing to acknowledge that and offer something positive for the crime I committed.
In many ways, restorative justice is an intervention programme that targets petty crime like stealing in its beginning stages before it escalates to violent armed robbery and murder. With a little imagination, other community-service projects can become part of restorative justice.
Before covid, the Sycamore Tree Mediation Programme, run by prisons through prison officer Carlos Corraspe, put inmates and victims of crime in contact with each other through this invaluable international programme. Victims were not paired up with the person who actually committed the crime.
One of my debaters on the prison all-star debate team participated in this project, and said it was a life-changing experience. The programme created empathy and a whole new understanding of how his actions affected others. He is doing admirably well now that he is in “the free world.”
That programme has not started back since we got hit with the pandemic.
Restorative justice narrows the gap between victim and perpetrator because it provides a framework for valuing everyone’s life.
We will not solve our crime problem until we allow every single person to feel like a valued citizen capable of change and capable of contributing in a positive way to this society.
Just locking someone in a jail cell is not a solution. It’s an outcome of our anger and frustration. Restorative justice is a better, more humane way to deal with crime. This is why it is important for all of us to buy into restorative justice.