Restorative Justice: Restorative of Right Relationships, of Community.

On August 15, 1995 my sister was shot several times in the face and chest while she lay sleeping by a male “friend” our family had known since childhood. She was a wife and mother of 2 small children, a daughter, and a sister. Her family was shattered. Our family was shattered. The hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life was to tell my seven-year old niece that her mother was dead.

picture courtesy of Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez

Because there was a confession and a plea-bargain, we had no day in court. It was all handled by the state prosecutor, and because my sister was not considered my “immediate” family because we both had families of our own, I was not kept in the loop by the police and prosecutor. I was not informed when the murderer was released from jail, finding out only through a picture of him through a friend of a friend on Facebook.
Neither I nor my family have ever received any communication from him, no explanation, no apologies. I am still waiting for an explanation.

Retributive justice is the idea that those who commit crimes should have to pay in some like fashion for the crimes they have committed. An eye for an eye. We have some innate sense that the scales of justice need to be balanced; offenders must pay in some way for the crimes they commit. Through paying for their crimes, they somehow rebalance the scales, and we feel in some way that justice has been served. But I never felt that way. Of course, he did not receive the death penalty, which would have been in-kind, but for me, that would never have balanced the scales, the only way to do that would have been to bring my sister back from the dead.

What I have been seeking is something else—restorative justice. The goal of restorative justice is a restoration of right relationships, sometimes through restitution, sometimes through talking, and a restoration of community. For example, a few years ago a neighborhood teen stole our motor scooter. A goal of restorative justice would be to re-establish right relationships between neighbors, perhaps having the teen work off what he had done through yard work, thus balancing the scales and restoring community. This lets the teenager know just how much hard work it is to work off $1300, and through getting to know us, it would have humanized us to him. So what if we were to redefine our concept of justice, to rethink it? This is not difficult to envision when it comes to teen petty theft, but in violent offenses it is much more difficult.

But I can imagine what might bring me some peace of mind. Crimes are not just a matter between the perpetrator and the state—all family members should be kept abreast of all developments in cases like these, including release of prisoners. Perhaps I do not want a restoration of a relationship with the murderer, but some kind of explanation why and an apology would go a long way in my healing. I long ago, intellectually, forgave him, but emotionally is another thing. Restorative justice sometimes involves a sit-down conversation between parties—I would welcome that. It is also important to realize that not only my family was shattered, but his family as well. Restorative justice involves reintegrating the offender into community, maybe not with my family, but with his. Judging from Facebook photos, his family has welcomed him back, but my family and his family have had no contact and no restoration of community or an attempt at an apology or understanding.

picture courtesy of Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez

Perhaps an illustration from Africa would help our nation reformulate ideas of justice. After the genocide in Rwanda and Barundi, many perpetrators of the violence were put in prison. A few years ago, when they were about to be released, the community was worried that the survivors would retaliate—an eye for an eye. That is when the program Healing and Rebuilding our Communities was born (the Richmond Peace Education Center has since brought this program from Africa). This program brings together survivors and perpetrators in weekend-long settings to talk about the trauma that resulted from the violence. As survivors talk about their trauma, those involved in violent crime see the effect their actions have had. But they also begin to open up and speak about their own trauma, in a non-judgmental setting. What happens, then, is through the telling of stories, and seeing the others point of view, both sides begin to heal, forgiveness sometimes occurs, and community is restored. Even though it seems like it shouldn’t work–bringing murderers and rapists together with survivors–their experience is that it has rebuilt their community and prevented more violence. This is restorative justice at the most difficult level. But only through a rebuilding of right relationships, a restoration of community, and healing from trauma, will future violence be prevented. This is justice re-imagined.

Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez is affiliate faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She holds a doctorate from Union Presbyterian Seminary, here in Richmond, and has lived in Richmond since 1986.  She is a board member of the Richmond Peace Education Center, and the producer, along with her students, of “A Time for Peace” radio segment on WRIR 97.3 FM.


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