A man in his late twenties sits across from the woman whose house he entered to steal articles that he could sell in order to buy the drugs he desperately needed to feed his habit. He listens as she tells him about the impact his actions had on her family, especially her young children. Her eight-year-old can’t understand why he had to break the window in his bedroom to get in. Could he not ask to come into the house? Could he not ask if he needed help?
The man is full of remorse and wishes he could turn back the clock — but he can’t. He can only express how deeply sorry he is. He offers to pay for the damage he caused in the house and for the things he stole. She is anxious to know if she was targeted, and explains how things have changed in their house because they no longer feel as safe. The children are afraid to be alone in their bedrooms. The offender has a young boy himself and he is clearly impacted by this as he imagines his own son being afraid. With tears on his cheeks, he again expresses his regret, and his desire to change his life.
The woman is encouraged to hear what the man has done to get off drugs and the steps he has taken to start a new life. They reach an agreement which they both sign. This agreement is sent to the Crown Attorney, indicating a timeline for the actions to be completed. When all the commitments have been complied with, the mediator sends the information to the Crown and the charges are dropped. If they are not, a report is sent to the Crown and the offender comes before the courts to deal with the charge.
Restorative justice upholds a deep sense of the need for accountability. It is important for us to know that the other party knows the kind of impact their actions have had on us. It is meaningful for the victim to be involved in negotiating what is an appropriate agreement. As difficult as it may be to face the person, this interaction can have a huge positive impact on the offender and the victim. In many circumstances, a sense of understanding comes from hearing what was happening in the life of the offender. Some offenders come from an environment where it has never occurred to them how their offences have impacted the lives of their victims. Restorative justice is about giving people the privilege of telling their story, and with the help of a mediator, ensuring that the listener has heard the story and understands the full impact — on both sides.
The Criminal Justice System has been designed to hold the offender accountable. In the court room, it remains the Queen versus the defence. Even when the personnel of the Criminal Justice System exercise extreme sensitivity, the process leaves no room for restorative dialogue between the victim and the offender. Restorative justice lives out Jesus’ teaching of reconciliation. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20), Jesus portrays God, represented by the father, as fundamentally compassionate, not as a stern taskmaster who demands that we fill requirements for the sake of a reward. “So he (the prodigal son) set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
Restorative justice is not new. It has been a primary means of resolving conflict in many parts of the world for centuries. Its history can be traced back through time to the traditions of indigenous communities. Now we are called to use this healing process and sit with people impacted by residential schools and hear their stories. As most of the victims are second and third generation, so are those in the Church who are called to remember the history and sit in the place of our predecessors, listening with an ear to understanding. We did not make the decisions about residential schools but our government and our Church did.
In hindsight, we wonder, “How could intelligent, caring people make this kind of legislature? How could they have thought taking children away from their parental home and community was a good thing?” Having said that, I have wondered if I might have been one of those who felt called by God to serve in a residential school, feeling I was doing a good ministry. We have much work to do. Our country can only be as strong as our relationships within it. We are presently fractured, and desperately needing healing. Our shared future is only going to get more fractured unless we address it by sitting across from our fellow Canadians and listening with our hearts.
Like the offender who broke into the house, we cannot turn back the clock, but we can be intentional and clear how we move forward. For restorative justice to work well, it needs to have both parties at the table. We often ask the offender to read their letter of apology out loud to the victim. It is a powerful moment in the process and one seldom seen in the court room.