Justice as restoration of trust

“Restorative justice is a bold and thought-provoking innovation that has engaged the energies and excited the hopes of criminal justice reformers throughout the world over the last several decades.  And yet, while it has achieved outstanding results in thousands of programs, it has remained a marginal development because it has failed to articulate a theory and set of practice applicable to serious crimes and adult offenders.  Unless it can do so, it may very well remain on the sidelines, ‘doomed to irrelevance and marginality.’”

In this paragraph, which opens the last chapter of his new book, Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice:  From the Margins to the Mainstream, Ross London – a former judge, prosecutor and public defender turned professor – accurately summarizes the state of the field.  Fortunately, he argues, it need not and should not remain in this state.

What restorative justice offers, he says, is not so much new justice practices but a different view of crime and a new goal for justice: crime is seen as a source of harm that must be repaired.  Moreover, the essential harm of crime is the loss of trust, on both interpersonal and social levels.  What victims and communities need is to have their trust restored.  The essential obligation of offenders is to show that they are trustworthy.  The purpose of justice should be to encourage this process.

The overriding goal of justice, then, ought to be the restoration of trust.  The attempt to achieve this on both personal and social levels, he argues, can provide a unifying umbrella for our response to crime. Rather than replacing other, more traditional goals, it would become the overriding consideration in sentencing, providing rationales for and limits to the application of goals such as incapacitation and punishment.

London provides a comprehensive analysis and application of his argument, exploring its socio-biological basis and how it addresses the needs of victims, offenders and society as a whole.   He discusses the role of apology, forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, victim-offender dialogues and punishment within this framework.

Punishment alone, he argues, “is an extraordinarily poor way of restoring trust, either in an offender or in society.”  However, it has an important restorative role for individuals and society if it is limited, accepted as deserved, and part of a larger strategy aimed at the restoration of trust and relationships.

Having himself played key roles in criminal justice, he recognizes justice’s ritual elements.  Criminal justice is, by and large, a ritual of exclusion, “a form of symbolic degradation that strips the offender of his membership in the moral community….”  But justice also has the potential to become a ritual of inclusion and restoration.

London’s argument is much too complex to summarize here.   Instead, let me emphasize two major points.  First, loss of trust is the fundamental harm of crime, and restoration of trust is a basic need.  In my experience, this rings true in the lives of victims, offenders and communities.

Second, by identifying restoration of trust as the overarching goal of justice, we might be able to provide a realistic and comprehensive theory of sentencing, for all levels of crime.    With restoration of trust as the primary goal, we might be able to refocus and incorporate the other widely-embraced and more usual goals of justice.

“The restoration of trust approach integrates conventional sentencing theories under the new goal of repairing the harm of crime that applies to all cases,” not just so-called “minor” crimes and cooperative offenders.  In this way, restorative justice might move from the margins to the mainstream and realize the potential that it offers.

This is a book worth reading. My primary disappointment is the price; at a list price of $75, it will not get the audience it deserves.   Now that the book is out, I restate a suggestion that I made to Ross when I read an earlier draft:  that he make his essential argument available in shorter, more accessible form so that it can stimulate the kind of dialogue that it needs.

Crime, Punishment, and Restorative Justice is published by FirstForum Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers (2011).

5 comments on “Justice as restoration of trust”

  1. Dear Howard:

    I hope Ross London catch up with your great idea of a Little Book of Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice.

    Trust is a beautiful word that expresses the result of meeting human needs. Mary Clark already said it, there won’t be peace in the world if all human needs are not met.

    My concerns with the unintended consecuences of the application of restorative justice is just that, that in the delicate marriage of state and restorative programs, we end up with application that forget what it takes to built trust, that is, to really meet human needs.

    And that is why I also believe in Circles as the most restorative justice process. As RH practitioners we need to create spaces of healing, where the traumatized brain can heal, where the web of relations be restored, where we can see ourselves and others in our best selves, conscious of the needs of mind, heart, body and spirit. Then trust will flourish.

  2. I agree with the premise offered by Charito but the process of learning to trust is often not so easy. Each week when I ask the offender in a women’s prison “who do you trust?” There is a long pause. The idea of trust is not understood. If you have been let down by those you trusted to care for you and protect you as a child, then your understanding of ‘trust” is very limited. Trust is something that needs to be understood cognitively and experientially. It is also good to have a process such as that introduced through RJ circles, conferencing, etc.

  3. Andrew says:

    “The essential obligation of offenders is to show that they are trustworthy. The purpose of justice should be to encourage this process.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. If only society thought this same way. However, how easy is it to have offenders understand and embrace being trustworthy when many of them have been abused and let down by their own family and friends?

    Society looks at offenders with shock when they break laws and their trust, yet these offenders have had next to no solid moral examples to follow.

  4. Michael Cockram says:

    The suggestion by Ross London that RJ should seek to encourage criminal justice systems to set as their primary goal the Restoration of Trust, while initially attractive to me, is, I believe, misconceived and in practice unworkable. That is because of the nature of Trust, how it is established and who is expected to exercise it or to honour it by being “trustworthy”. I would like to make the following propositions:

    · Trust once lost cannot be commanded or even given – it can only be earned

    · If there is any breach after it has been earned it must be reearned (a much more difficult task)

    · Trust is required on both sides – not just in respect of the offender – and that would require the earning of trust by community, family and other institutions (an immense task)

    · Trust is really a bi product of something else – ie the established restoration of an offender together with the restoration of those who have suffered at his hands

    I believe the primary goal of criminal justice systems should be to restore, not trust, but community. This may imply the recovery of a level of trust but the primary concern is the recovery of a degree of acceptance of the offender as an individual which is not conditional on approval of his behavior. Once a sense of belonging is established (it may never have existed before) behavioural changes may occur which may in turn lead to some recovery of trust. In the meantime the law may need to exact protective measures against the offender which will enable the community to be reasonably safe.

    Prison is not usually a reasonable mode to work towards establishment of community (although it can be used to control moves towards that end). Generally prison (as currently used) is destructive of nearly every community structure to which a prisoner may have belonged.

    The following quotation (from The Quest for the Grail by Richard Rohr) demonstrates these views

    “When you truly and fully belong, it is so natural to believe and to become. The tragedy of our time is that so very many do not belong (no parents, no community, no tradition). No wonder it is so hard to believe, and survival takes the place of becoming”

    Michael Cockram

    STP facilitator WA

  5. Ross London says:

    re: Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice.
    Dear Michael:
    I appreciate your comments, but I can see that they stem from a misunderstanding of my conception of personal and social trust. Let me explain.

    Everyone has his or her own personal idea of trust and, given the familiar usage of the word “trust” as honesty or reliability (as in “If Ron says he’ll do it, you can trust him” for example), all of your comments are very well taken.

    But in the course of my book, I try to develop a unique concept of trust that is a bit different from this familiar usage- one that is very fundamental to life in society. It’s what I call “the presumption of reciprocity in others.” From this perspective of trust, the role of community is absolutely crucial.

    In the aftermath of crime, we ask “what must be done to restore the victim’s trust in the offender and in society?” and “what must the offender do to re-establish a basic level of trust that will permit him to re-enter the community as our moral equal?” These conditions for restoring trust become the pathway back to healing for the victim and the pathway back to social re-integration for the offender.

    I developed this thesis over the course of several chapters, each building upon the other, so that the meaning does become crystal clear. Trust me!

    If I were wealthy enough, I’d love to send you (and any other interested reader) a copy of my book so that you can better appreciate how the restoration of personal and social trust is central to the work we undertake in attempting to repair the harm of crime to individuals and to communities.

    But since that’s not possible, I hope I’ve tweaked your curiosity enough to go out and buy a copy yourself!

    If you do, please let’s carry on the dialogue! (Feel free to contact be at rdl@berkeleycollege.edu). It’s really important to me to get feedback from RJ practitioners and everyone with a desire for fundamental criminal justice reform.

    Best wishes,

    Ross London

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