Doing justice honourably

A guest post by Janet Sim Elder.

A crucial question in this election year is how do we do justice honourably with both victims and offenders? How can recidivism continue downwards and how do public attitudes change to being solidly evidence-based? How do we face the challenge of changing the justice landscape? Can we provide the moral courage to help our society take steps towards a more just and merciful society?

Biblical pillars of doing justice and loving mercy [Micah 6:8b] are heavily strained in NZ. We rush to apportion blame rather than ask who has been hurt by crime. We mete out a retributive ‘justice’ which perpetuates further injustices. We legislate for three strikes and there is no more mercy. Have we the moral courage to do the harder task? To ask the restorative questions ‘Together, how can we put this right? Are forgiveness and reconciliation possible?’.

Voices which have shaped increasingly punitive justice policies recently with both major political parties have come from a minority. Populist politicians listen to these voices above others. Shameful stripping of citizenship for all prisoners is the latest in punitive legislation in the news as I write.

Voices we might listen to more attentively as we prepare to vote include the Chief Justice, the Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, Judge Sir David Carruthers Chair of the Parole Board[1], and Chief Family Court Judge Andrew Becroft – all with intimate knowledge of our justice system.

They all firmly support evidence-based change, and a better informed wider society, alongside the Silverstream Declaration soon to be released by the organisations which wrote the Declaration at the “Breaking down the Barriers” Conference in October 2010. Sponsors of this landmark gathering in Upper Hutt were Prison Fellowship New Zealand [PFNZ], Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa NZ, Pathway Trust, Pillars Inc. and the Salvation Army. National and international research was shared by experts in their fields, showing conclusively there are alternatives that do work to get prison numbers down.

The conference confirmed we need together to do more about the impact of crime on victims, that Restorative Justice works positively for both victims and offenders alike. When prisons treat people with more dignity and compassion, reoffending goes down. We could benefit from having open prisons like Norway where dislocated families have visiting rights over a weekend with their parent. Children see their dads on the weekend. Imagine that!

With an incarceration rate soaring over most other OECD countries[2], the most painful question is – could we become a less punitive society? There’s been a 35% increase in population in 187 NZ prison sites in the last five years! Corrections is now the largest government department. Fiscal sense? The Silverstream Declaration suggests it’s ‘fiscally irresponsible’ to be building more prisons.[3] Reputable international evidence is mounting that incarceration does not work for most offenders.

Working in Restorative Justice, I gain the growing conviction that victims’ stories of crimes (from burglary to rape and brutal murder) are stories to be told to offenders. To stand in their victims’ shoes is the darkest place to be, but easily avoided. Courageously telling stories, in a safe place, face to face, is what can turn both the lives of victims and offenders around towards life no longer dominated by painful pasts. The best apology victims say they want is when they know the offender will never commit the crime against anyone, ever again.

Offenders, male and female, find it very difficult to rehabilitate. Creative, hopeful ways forward were outlined at the conference: projects bringing church and community group resources together to address reintegration issues facing people as they return to life in the complex world outside the prison.[4]

What does the Gospel story teach about God’s ‘justice and mercy’ and how we act towards other human beings? The supreme example comes from Jesus on the cross.

‘Revealed in his dying prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” is the conviction that justice in itself is not enough, that the humanity of the perpetrators of injustice must be upheld alongside the humanity of the victims, and that justice must serve still higher goals of reconciliation, healing and rehabilitation…’[5].

If we want to change the justice landscape, say ‘no more’ to quick-fix legislation, knee-jerk, non-evidence-based reactions embodied in flaky legislation, we must seriously become better informed. In the light of God’s generous giving to us in Christ, we cannot do less.

Janet Sim Elder is an elder of Knox Presbyterian Church, Dunedin, and convenor of their Social Justice Workgroups.

[1] A recent survey by the Board over the last ten years on serious criminals released on parole showed the number re-offending in any one month over that time was reduced from 100 incidents per month ten years ago to the most recent  average of 45 incidents per month.

[2] NZ has the fourth highest rate of any OECD country except  the USA (1), Mexico (2) and the Czech republic (3). Communication from Barry Matthews, CE Corrections [07/10/10].

[3] The average cost p.a. to keep one prisoner incarcerated is $90,000. It costs an average $3,600 for a year’s community service sentence.

[5] Graham Redding: Crime and Justice: a Biblical and Theological Perspective, from Crime & Justice (pub. PCANZ  October 2010)

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