Learning a Lesson from Moses

This article was originally published in the Church Times.

Dr. Howard Zehr
Dr. Howard Zehr

“I HAVE A DREAM,” intones the gentle, bespectacled man at the podium. “Dr Martin Luther King said he had a dream that justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I share that dream, but I want to add my own twist . . .”

Dr Howard Zehr, Professor of Restorative Justice at the Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia, was closing the fourth International Winchester Restorative Justice Conference at the city’s Guildhall – an event in October that brought together senior police and prison staff, academics, politicians, chaplains, youth-offending teams, educationalists, business people, and judges, from as far away as New Zealand, to discuss “restorative” alternatives to the present “retributive” Western criminal-justice system.

Dr Zehr is known as the grandfather of restorative justice (RJ): they could equally call him the godfather. As a Mennonite, he was one of the first to experiment with alternative ways of resolving conflict and of “restoring” victims and offenders to their communities after a crime had been committed.

“RJ is usually traced to a case in Ontario, Canada,” he tells me over coffee, “where two Mennonites – a probation officer, Mark Yantzi, and a community volunteer, Dave Worth – were meeting with a group of other Christians about how you could do justice-and-peace work in real life.”

The pair were involved in the case of two young men who had vandalised 22 properties in a small town. “The town was up in arms, and they realised the victims weren’t going to get much out of the usual process, while the kids were just going to go to jail.”

As a result of the discussion, Mr Yantzi and Mr Worth suggested to the judge at the trial that the offenders, instead of receiving a traditional sentence, should meet the victims. The judge agreed. “So they took these two guys door-to-door,” explains Dr Zehr.

They received a range of responses, he says. “But they did so well that it started this whole movement and this whole field.”

Dr Zehr, who coined the phrase “restorative justice”, helped to conceptualise the process. In 1990, he wrote the movement’s Bible, Changing Lenses, which linked restorative practice to the Old Testament notion of shalom.

“I began to realise how distorted our understandings of justice in the Western world are,” he says. “The whole mentality of justice on the streets is tit-for-tat. If someone does something to you, you have to ‘waste’ them. And the criminal-justice system emphasises the mentality, on an institutionalised scale.”

SIR CHARLES POLLARD agrees. As Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police for 11 years, until 2002, he was responsible for introducing RJ to this country, after losing faith in the present system.

“Three out of four people come out of prison and offend within three to four months. Brilliant system! But why would you expect it to work if some of the most important people – the victims of crime – aren’t engaged in helping to sort things out?”

Although RJ techniques vary, most retain the objective of holding offenders personally to account for their crime in a way that benefits victims, reduces reoffending, and re-engages with communities.

Sir Charles initially sought new ways of working with young offenders, by introducing conferences between offenders and their victims in cases that did not have to go to court. Today, restorative justice offers an increasingly accepted form of intervention for police officers and youth-offending teams.

Since the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, RJ has been built into the youth-justice system. The majority of first-time court appearances result in a referral order that allows the young person to see the effects of their behaviour on others.

In Winchester, we are shown a practical example of RJ in action. Five boys had sprayed graffiti over several properties. They were identified by a local constable, and faced final cautions. They agreed, along with those who lived in the area, to meet for a conference.

There, two of the boys, Arran and Ryan, listened to members of the community who had suffered at their hands. “It really hit home, the extent of the damage, and seeing how people had been affected,” said Arran. It was agreed that the boys would remove the graffiti and clean up the area.

Most of those gathered at Winchester seem to agree that it is one thing to talk about RJ, but another to experience it. “You can be logical and academic about this, but it has to drop 12 inches from your head to your heart,” says Peter Woolf, who is in Winchester with Will Riley, a city investor.

They first met five years ago when Mr Woolf, a drug addict on parole, broke into Mr Riley’s house. A fight ensued as Mr Riley tried to apprehend the burglar. Mr Woolf was sent back to prison, before the opportunity for some RJ brought them together again.

“You can’t read or write about RJ,” says Mr Riley, with passion. “You have to go through it.

“Finally, I could tell people – my wife, my friends, Peter – what it made me feel like. I’m a big man and I couldn’t even defend my own house. Finally, I could tell him how bloody annoyed I was. From a victim’s standpoint, this was incredibly important; incredibly powerful. But for Peter, it was like a train had hit him – he was clearly physically affected by what I had to say.”

Mr Riley decided that a good agreement would be for Mr Woolf to come off drugs and report to him every six months about how he was getting on. Mr Woolf duly complied, and the two are now friends. Both are passionate about the benefits. “I was on a bus telling the guy sitting next to me about RJ,” said Mr Woolf. A serial offender from the age of ten, he has not committed a crime since.

Restorative justice may not be widespread – Dr Zehr suggests that its presence is still “piecemeal” in most countries, including the UK – but its reach is wide, from dinner ladies who are trained in “instant RJ” in schools, to work among prisoners on death row in the United States. As Sir Charles Pollard explains: “It is a set of principles that can work anywhere you’ve got harm.”

DR ZEHR was invited to work with victims of the Oklahoma bombing, when many were called to give evidence in the second sentencing trial of Timothy McVeigh. He helped to provide a link between the witnesses and the lawyers, and offered assistance to those victims who were opposed to the death penalty but felt alienated because of their beliefs.

As a result of this, and the work that followed, “most of the big high-profile cases in America now have victim-outreach workers,” he explains, which can sometimes affect the outcome of the sentence.

“Sometimes, the work will result in a plea agreement; the victims will say, some of us are in favour of the death penalty, but here’s what we really want: we want him to tell us what he did and take responsibility, not make any money from it.”

Dr Zehr believes this may have happened at the trial of the alleged bomber of 11 September, Zacarias Moussaoui. “That sentence came out as life in prison, instead of the death penalty, and some people say it was because of this work,” he says.

Believers and practitioners are working hard in the UK to spread the word and the practice. There are seminars in Winchester about RJ and domestic violence, hate crime, sexual offences, and even the arts.

Valerie Keitch tells how she chairs the country’s first (and only) community justice panel in Chard and Ilminster, Somerset. She, and trained community volunteers, use RJ conferences for smaller offences that might otherwise end in court.

She tells the story of Georg
ina, who attacked her partner with a bottle at a pub. It turned out she had been a victim of domestic violence. She was asked to attend a conference with the landlord of the pub and others who were there when the incident happened. The panel agreed that she should work at the pub for two days a week to see the effects of drunkenness. The landlord was so impressed with Georgina’s attitude that he offered her a job; she also found the strength, as a result, to leave her abusive relationship.

While most of those who gather in Winchester are believers, some are not – such as David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth. He was a victim of burglary and is still “very angry about it”, as he tells the conference. “It left a mark on me and my family, and I did not want to see the man back in my town. Restorative justice is an easy option which isn’t going to work.”

Judge Fred McElrea, however, has helped to pioneer restorative justice in New Zealand since seeing the benefits of similar family-group conferences among young people since the 1990s. “If you give people the chance to experience this process, they nearly always have a different attitude to the offender, and to what’s happened, perhaps because they’ve been released from the grip of that wrong on them; in their generosity, they want to see some good come out of it for everybody.”

The idea, he stresses, is not that punishment should be entirely removed from the process, but that it is moved from its heart.

“A young Canadian man killed his two best friends drink-driving. Instead of going to prison – which is what normally would have happened – the parents of the dead boys came up with a proposal which was supported by the court, where he went to speak to high schools in that part of the world about what it was like to kill your two best friends. It was such a powerful process. The death toll dropped dramatically during the next summer.”

The battle, he says, is to overcome the predominant adversarial ethos of the criminal-justice system – which sustains an industry of professionals and dominates Western judicial models – as well as the notion that

RJ is simply a soft form of community service.

Part of that battle is to gather evidence for the success of restorative justice, which is where Lawrence Sherman, the Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, comes in.

In February, the report he co-wrote with Heather Strang, Restorative Justice: The evidence, suggested that RJ has substantially reduced the number of repeat offenders (but not all); reduced post-traumatic-stress symptoms among victims (and their related costs); provided more satisfaction for both victims and offenders; reduced victims’ desire for violent revenge; reduced the costs of criminal justice; and lowered the rate of recidivism among adults.

He argues that RJ is “ready to be put out to far broader use, perhaps under a ‘restorative justice board'” that could then “grow RJ rapidly as an evidence-based policy”.

But even he agrees that there is still no substitute for personal experience, which can be profoundly spiritual.

“If people went to RJ conferences as supporters, victims, or offenders, they may get many of the same kinds of benefits that we associate with churchgoing, in terms of being able to absorb the challenges of life,” Professor Sherman tells me. “Maybe we can make the criminal-justice process a more constructive process to everyone concerned if we recognise the truly religious dimension of what helps to make RJ work.”

Is it not hard, however, to talk about spirituality in a culture that wants to be tough on crime and its causes? “It may be hard to speak publicly about spiritual values in a way that the Daily Mail will appreciate, but when you listen to someone such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking about ‘no future without forgiveness’, and the values of ubuntu theology, in which we all exist by our connection to all others, I think the public supports people who stand for principles, and the non-sectarian values that can be connected to a deep and abiding faith.”

It is a view shared by Dr Zehr. “It’s interesting to me just how many of the people who get involved in RJ who aren’t necessarily religious say it’s a spiritual experience,” he says.

“This is an urgent situation. Our criminal-justice system is bankrupt. It seems to me that, in the long run, if we are going to keep this on track, the Church is going to have to be something of a conscience for it.”

Professor Sherman sees a clear chance for faith-based communities to play a part. “We need a larger coalition that goes beyond the state-funded agencies – the police, probation, youth justice – where the movement for RJ has been concentrated for at least the last decade in this country. Perhaps if the Church itself could convene a more inclusive discussion with other faiths, and with the agencies of justice, and citizen activists and volunteers, that could be a way to get us to the tipping point.

“What could be a better way to make the world safer for people of all faiths, than to unite around one principle that all faiths may agree on – and that is, how you respond to crimes in ways that are consistent with the possibility of atonement and forgiveness?” he asks.

“I have a dream,” says the bespectacled man at the podium. “I have a dream that when we talk about justice, we will no longer have to prefix it with words such as ‘restorative’.

“I have a dream that we won’t have to talk about ‘restorative justice’, because it will be understood that true justice is about restoration, and about transformation. I have that dream.”