Restorative Justice

what-is-restorative-jCanada was the birthplace of restorative Justice in North America where a program was started in Ontario in 1974. The Mennonite Church sponsored the first face-to-face meetings between victim and offender, and emphasized the purpose of the dialogue was to gain understanding and reconciliation between the two parties.

In the US, the beginning of restorative justice was also about mediation between victim and offender. Early programs were referred to as VORP (Victim/Offender Reconciliation Program). The first US program was created in 1978. It was a shift from the traditional criminal justice system; the offender’s criminal actions violate the state and its laws and the focus is to establish the guilt of the offender and administer punishment.

It is an adversarial system where one wins and one loses.

Restorative justice puts the emphasis on the broken relationships the crime creates and not on the violation of the state. It’s about repairing the harm done and acknowledging that the crime harmed the community and some healing must take place.

Correctional services have put programs in place but I prefer initiatives like the Elizabeth Fry society and numerous others where members of the public can volunteer to contribute to the betterment of the situation. There is less bureaucracy involved and it is often during the reintegration of inmates into society.

Elizabeth Fry

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Many interesting biographies were written about Elizabeth Fry but Spencer Johnson teaches us the value of kindness by examining her life (1780-1845) in his book The Value of Kindness: The Story of Elizabeth Fry (Value tales).

The book is about Elizabeth growing up in a wealthy British family. Seeing that she had an easier life than many people, she began visiting people at the local hospital to make them happier while they got well. When she was older, she visited women in Newgate Prison. She worked to make their surroundings healthier and to provide them with education that would improve their lives. Elizabeth persuaded others to help–and started one of the largest prison reform movements in history.

Closing quote: “Perhaps, like Elizabeth Fry, you might like to think about how good you feel when you are kind. Of course, you may decide to bring kindness into your own life in a very different way, indeed. But whatever you decide to do, let’s hope it is something that will make you a happier person… Just like our good friend Elizabeth Fry.” (pp. 58-60)

In Costa Rica, students learn about civic virtue and kindness. It is very important to teach life skills and should be in my opinion, part of any great school curriculum. It is lacking more and more in our north american society, as clearly demonstrated with the advent of social media.  

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) is a national, voluntary, not-for-profit organization. Today there are 26 member societies across Canada in 9 provinces and in the Yukon Territory, with interest for developing societies in the other two territories and the 10th province. CAEFS is incorporated pursuant to the provisions of the Canada Corporations Act. Local societies are incorporated under provincial statutes.

Particularly in these times of increasing restraint, voluntarism continues to be an essential part of Elizabeth Fry work. Both volunteer and paid staff are involved in governance as well as program and service delivery throughout the association. In the last year, 29 volunteers, including Board members, devoted a total of 7,017 hours of work to the CAEFS’ office. This supplemented the work of CAEFS’ two full-time staff members. In our 26 member societies, 1,495 volunteers.

The association exists to ensure substantive equality in the delivery and development of services and programs through public education, research, legislative and administrative reform, regionally, nationally and internationally. in a total of 163,314 hours, supplementing the time of 272 full-time staff and 195 part-time staff.

If you want to volunteer for an Elizabeth Fry Society in your region, consult their website  Elizabeth Fry Society

The Sweden prison system

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Swedish prisons have long had a reputation around the world as being liberal and progressive. So much so that in 2005 even Saddam Hussein requested to be transferred to a Swedish prison to await his trial – a request that was rejected.

“We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has an impact,” says Nils Oberg, head of Sweden’s prison and probation services.

Despite the hardening of attitudes toward prison security following some escape scandals, the Swedes still managed to maintain a broadly humane approach to sentencing, even of the most serious offenders: jail terms rarely exceed 10 years; those who receive life imprisonment can still apply to the courts after a decade to have the sentence commuted to a fixed term, usually in the region of 18 to 25 years. Sweden was the first country in Europe to introduce the electronic tagging of convicted criminals and continues to strive to minimize short-term prison sentences wherever possible by using community-based measures – proven to be more effective at reducing re-offending.

For years, they ran programs to help the inmates addicted to drugs and they have broader goals and objectives for the Swedish justice department: “This year and next year the priority of our work will be with young offenders and men with convictions of violent behavior. They are also developing programs to address behaviors such as aggression and violence. These are the important things for our society when these people are released.”

There are some people who will not or cannot change without new scientific interventions to stimulate the part of their brain that is deficient, but in their experience, the majority of prisoners want to change and everything must be done to help facilitate that. It is not always possible to achieve this in one prison sentence and it is not just prison that can rehabilitate.

It is often a combined process involving probation and greater society. We can give education and training, but when they leave prison these people need housing and jobs and the help of citizens without judgement and being ostracized.

That is restorative justice.