Thursday, September 8, 2011

No Future Without Forgiveness: Community Psychology and Restorative Justice

“Americans understand justice.” This was the response Gov. Rick Perry gave as to why the audience at last night’s GOP debate erupted in applause when it was pointed out that he’d order more executions than “any other governor in modern times.” Asked whether he ever had trouble sleeping at night wondering if he had been responsible for the death of an innocent person, he replied no, describing capital punishment as “ultimate justice” for horrendous crimes.

Does Rick Perry understand justice? If justice is to be described as state-enforced punishment for wrongdoing, then yes, he does, and so does his audience. However, this version of justice – retributive justice – is not the only definition that exists. When it comes to “heinous crimes” it’s natural to want to see the party responsible suffer for their wrongdoing. I would be lying if I claimed not to rejoice at news of the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. But on the day of the September 11th attacks, I cried not only for the deaths that occurred on that day, but also for the countless deaths that I knew would result from our attempts to seek out “justice” for this act.

Ten years later, over $3 trillion dollars has been spent and countless lives have been lost as we’ve seen ourselves mired in some of the longest wars in US history. Some claim that we are safer now, while others argue that we’ve played into the hands of our attackers. Regardless of where one stands, it’s difficult to find someone who believes that somehow through all of this war, we’ve achieved “justice.”

When it comes to some of the most horrid crimes - rape, murder, acts of systematic oppression– there is little solace to be gained from purely retributive approaches. An alternative to this form of justice exists. Restorative justice frames criminal acts not as offenses against the state that require punishment, but as offenses against individuals and communities that necessitate healing. Restorative justice is not just a feel-good concept - it has been applied to some of the most challenging crimes. Survivors of rape and domestic violence often find the criminal justice system frustrating and dissatisfying, and restorative justice approaches may be superior in addressing issues of gender-based violence. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to uncover the truth about apartheid in South Africa, has been held up as a model of restorative justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written a book about his experience chairing the commission, titled “No Future Without Forgiveness." While the commission came under heavy criticism for its policy of offering amnesty to those who participated, and even Tutu has said elsewhere that there must be greater economic equality in South Africa in order for it to achieve peace, the TRC was historic in its scope and its application of the restorative justice framework.

Restorative justice is not only applicable to acts of individual or systematic violence. It is also a powerful potential tool for conflict resolution and community healing. A pair of events centered on Restorative Circles to be held in Illinois in October is being sponsored by PsySR (Psychologists for Social Responsibility). As community psychology practitioners, we’re interested in helping to build healthier communities, and restorative justice provides a useful framework for addressing challenging problems in a manner that’s consistent with our values. I can’t help but think that beats cheering for death.

Gina Cardazone, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

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