The hardest kind of justice
Apr 11, 2011
In countries throughout the world prisons are about to reach capacity, or more commonly, are completely overcrowded. Of those that do manage to get out of prison, in the case of the UK and the US for example, the rate of recidivism hovers around 50 and 60% every year since the mid-nineties. Meaning more than half of all former prisoners never get rehabilitated, never deal with issues of responsibility, trauma and emotion.
Furthermore, legal systems are flooded with cases creating a bottleneck that causes even the smallest of cases to last far longer than they should. When you add to this situation the astronomical costs of the average criminal justice system, it is easy to see that increasingly, governments have reached a breaking point. On the other side of the coin are the victims. Between the judges and the lawyers the average victim has a limited role in the very trial that is supposed to provide them with some sense of resolution and justice.The trauma that comes with the pain and suffering can last a lifetime.
In the US, one major problem is the breakdown between the victim and the American criminal justice system. Dr. Howard Zehr, known as the grandfather of restorative justice, has worked within the traditional US justice system as well as on restorative justice projects throughout the world. In 1997 he was appointed by the US. Federal Court to work with victims of the Oklahoma City bombing case. It was there he experienced how victims are left out of the American criminal justice system. “The McVeigh Oklahoma City Bombing case,” Zehr recalls, “was against the government of the US. Victims had to go to congress just to get the right to sit in on their own trial. That is part of the problem, how we define the wrong doing, we define it as basically against rules or laws or some central authority, and the individual harm gets left out of the process.”
It becomes clear that both victims’ and offenders’ needs are neglected and trauma on both sides is overlooked by current systems causing further problems. It may seem obvious that trauma has an influence on an individual or community of victims , what is not widely understood is that trauma impacts patterns of conflict and wrongdoing. That is to say, trauma can lead to someone harming someone else; trauma can cause someone to cause more trauma.
Take the World Trade Center Attack of 2001, which killed more than 3,000 people, but also caused anger, depression, and a range of trauma for families, loved ones, and complete strangers/fellow citizens throughout the US. But did all these people try to understand and face their trauma in a productive or effective manner? And did the method of seeking justice the government pursued, take into account the needs of these traumatized victims? Zehr, who worked on a project to help community leaders address these issues following Sept. 11th, explains the challenge their project faced. “After September 11th our organization was funded to start something called STAR, which was to train community leaders (and now a wider group) about how trauma works not only in the individual but in society and then develop strategies to address those kinds of trauma.