As a victim of crime, would you be willing to meet the person responsible? What would you say? Would you forgive them?
This is the basic crux of the Restorative Justice (RJ) programme underway in a number of prisons across the country. We talked to the experts to find out more about it.
What it’s all about
The programme aims to help rehabilitate the offenders and teach them how to take responsibilty for their actions, but also offers closure to the victims of crime.
“The idea is to examine the role the offenders had in the crime and get them to take responsibility for their actions while helping them to understand how the crime impacted on the victim,” said Amanda Dissel, Acting Executive Director and Programme Manager of the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
The role of RJ
Jeromy Mostert, a psychologist with the Department of Correctional Services, said the success of the programme hinged on the public being aware of the programme and understanding the process.
He added that RJ is a particular mindset which should be just as important as the criminal justice system. Victims get closure on crimes committed against them. This is psychologically healing.
Dr Ann Skelton, an advocate at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, added that there needs to be more access to information for the public to truly understand what RJ entails.
“I believe that South Africa has a lot of healing to do and I think that RJ has more prospects of changing behaviour than the normal criminal justice process does,” she said.
A step-by-step process
Mostert briefly summarised the process of RJ:
- Offenders indicate that they would like to meet with their victims to reconcile and to apologise.
- The psychologist then contacts the victim explaining the process and asks whether the victim wants to become involved.
- Both parties are counselled in preparation.
- They are then brought together and the victim gets the opportunity to ask certain questions and demand answers form the offender.
Who benefits from this?
According to the experts, both parties benefit.
“The offender gets healing, forgiveness, accountability, responsibility; while the victim gets healing, closure and peace,” said Mostert.
“The benefit to the victims is primarily that they get to tell their version of the events. The emotions they experience are vindicated by being acknowledged by the offender,” Skelton said.
“The offenders benefit by being forced to face up to the impact of what they have done, and by seeing what behaviour changes are necessary,” she said.
Are there any direct benefits for the offender?
Skelton said that if offenders participated in the programme, they might receive a benefit of some sort, such as diversion which avoids a criminal record, or a plea agreement carrying a lesser sentence than they might have received.
“This provides an incentive to tell the truth and face up to reality, so it can be a turning point. The offender also has the opportunity to express regrets or show empathy for the victim,” she said.
However, Dissel pointed out that offenders are told from the start that they should not have any expectations.
How successful has this been so far?
Mostert related a successful story of an offender who had shot and killed two people. The family of one of the victims had initiated the mediation, although the offender had by then already been included in an RJ programme in prison.
“The victims were counselled and eventually the parties got together. It was highly emotional and the family members of the deceased had an opportunity to speak about how the crime had affected them.”
“The offender was then given the opportunity to describe what had really transpired on the day and to express sorrow. The victim’s family accepted the apology and forgave him.”
Real-life success story
Skelton related a similar story of a case in which she was the legal representative for a teenage girl and her older boyfriend who had allegedly killed her parents.
Skelton said that the family of the victim, who was also the girl’s family, was deeply shocked and traumatised by the event.
“As part of her plea and sentence agreement, she participated in a face-to-face meeting at a family group conference, in which she had to explain what had happened.
“She expressed her sorrow and shame about her role in the crime, and the family members present expressed their sense of loss and pain - but ultimately forgave her.”
The challenges and obstacles facing RJ
Mostert claimed that the biggest problem facing the success of the RJ process in South Africa was the lack of awareness.
“There is an enormous lack of awareness of RJ, both in the community and criminal justice system. There is also a lack of funding for the project and a lack of contact details for victims makes it difficult to locate them.”
Why should you get involved?
Skelton said there are several reasons why the relevant people should become involved in this process.
She said she’d advise the offenders to be open-minded and truthful and to use the opportunity to change things in their life, and move away from crime.
She would also tell them to acknowledge their responsibilities and explain their circumstances and the things that led up to the crime. “You must consider carefully what you can do to put the wrong right.”
She would assure the victims that they will be supported and feel safe if they decide to go through this process.
“They should keep an open mind, express their feelings and accept that the offender may not be able to put everything right for them.”
Amanda Dissel, Acting Executive Director and Programme Manager of the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Jeromy Mostert, a psychologist with the Department of Correctional Services.
Dr Ann Skelton, advocate at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.
(Amy Henderson, Health24.com, October 2007)