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Let Justice Roll on Like a River

November 16, 2013

 “Where’s the justice in this?”


I have far too often heard this cry in the wilderness voiced to a media scrum on courthouse steps at the conclusion of yet another criminal trial.  It is the indignant lament of those enmeshed in and touched by our criminal justice system.  Their frustration always rekindles in me a slow burn at the insanity of this system that does far more harm than good, in many ways exacerbating the problems it is designed to address, and ultimately creating a plethora of collateral damage.


Concurrent with my emergent Christian faith, I was deeply involved, along with Mennonite practitioners and others, in the grassroots restorative justice movement.  At the time, I had high hopes for change.  Sadly, in my estimation, those hopes were largely in vain.  Indeed, rather than change for the better, the system as a whole has become worse.  Driven by reactionary thinking, our criminal justice system grows increasingly entrenched  in its primary paradigm of punishment, in the process evolving into a more and more arcane bureaucracy.   At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I will revisit the thinking on justice that was so many years ago indelibly etched into my very being, inextricably entwined with my faith in Jesus Christ.


At the core of this issue is how we define justice.  Inherent in our criminal justice system is the lex talionis, the law of retaliation.  It is reasoned that since offenders have caused pain, proportional pain must be meted upon them.  The function of the system is therefore retribution—“punishment that considered to be morally right and fully deserved”. 


While I understand the visceral appeal of this, it does not serve us well.  Punitive justice does not make anything “right”.  Neither does it provide an effective venue for those harmed to have their say (consequently leading many to resort to the media), nor does it provide them any substantive redress.  Rather our criminal justice system relegates those directly wronged to a secondary role in the process, its rules and laws assert that it is the Crown that is the primary victim.  For our criminal justice system the matter boils down to three simple questions:  “What laws have been broken?  Who ‘done’ it?  What do they deserve?” 


With its focus on punishment, our system has very little to do with actual accountability.  Rather than encourage understanding of the consequences of their actions and empathy for their victims, the adversarial process promotes offenders looking out for themselves.   Allowing them to distance themselves from their victims and to minimize the impact of their crimes, the system discourages them from acknowledging their responsibility and offers them little opportunity to act on this responsibility in concrete ways.   


With the cost of our criminal justice system surpassing $15 billion annually, and direct costs to victims at an equivalent amount (almost $1000 per Canadian), perhaps it is appropriate to ask a couple of questions.  First, in the opinion of Canadians, does our system work?  I suspect most would answer, “No!”  If that is the case, could there be a better way?  I think there is—restorative justice.


Restorative justice (Biblical justice as I see it) begins by taking a radically different view of crime.  Rather than being an offence against the Crown, crime is a violation of or harm to relationship, involving individuals and communities alike, and ultimately God.  Unlike retributive justice, the goal of restorative justice is restoration of all relationships affected.  Accordingly any attempts toward restoration of relationship must necessarily involve all affected parties coming together, directly or indirectly as need be, to dialogue toward a mutually satisfactory solution.  Obligations created by the violation are identified and addressed, and the offender is helped to understand the harm done and comprehend the consequences.  Thus the questions become: “Who has been hurt?  What are their needs?  Whose obligations are they?


Victims need to experience real justice.  They need validation, to know that what has happened to them is undeserved, and that something meaningful will be done about it.  They may need an apology and restitution.  They need answers:  Why did this happen to them?  What could have been done to prevent what happened?  They need to be able to tell their story and vent their feelings.  They need to be able to take their power back so that they can heal.


Offenders need to be held accountable in ways that encourage empathy and accountability.  They may need help to address personal needs.  Perhaps they, too, have feelings of victimization that need to be addressed.  They need to be integrated, perhaps for the first time, into community rather than isolated.  They need opportunities for personal transformation. 


One of my favourite Bible verses is Micah 6:8:


 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.


God’s justice can never be separated from His mercy.  His goal is always restoration of relationship.  


As a follower of Jesus, I find it incredible that so many Christians outspokenly support the status quo.  For those who would hold to  “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, I would point them to what Jesus had to say about that in Matthew 5:38-39:


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”


Hard words indeed. 


Until we can get past vengeance thinking and take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words, we will continue to suffer not only the effects of crime (which has been declining, by the way) but also the harmful effects of the system to which we have entrusted the burden of dealing with its fallout.

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