Restorative justice is the way forward
The Ministry of Justice is promoting the process of restorative justice as a practical and effective method of resolving conflicts, as well as for providing healing and restitution in the wake of crimes, with offenders taking full responsibility for their actions.
Restorative justice differs from mediation in that it goes well beyond the mere hearing of a case with a view to an amicable resolution. Rather, it is defined as an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice Carol Palmer says that an evaluation of the work of the seven centres in operation has not yet been done, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that more Jamaicans are looking to this option in cases where they have been wronged. She believes this is due in large measure to the fact that in the formal court system, victims and offenders have little say in determining the outcome of their cases.
"You are called to speak in the court only if the attorney sees that you have something of value to add. Other than that, you are a spectator in your process," she told last Wednesday's Editors' Forum hosted by The Gleaner at its North Street head office. For this reason, even after the case is settled, many questions still linger as to the real reasons behind the crimes, a situation that is adequately addressed during a conference, as the restorative justice sessions are termed.
a practical link
The centres serve as a practical link between the communities they serve and the Ministry of Justice and are staffed by people held in high regard by the communities. And while the decisions reached are legally binding, with a written agreement part of the final outcome, the setting is a lot less formal than a courthouse but with an established set of guidelines.
Another way in which the restorative justice session differs significantly is that it starts with the offender taking responsibility for his or her action, admitting to the crime, and expressing a willingness to make restitution.
Justice of the Peace Roydon Hall, who manages the Tower Hill restorative centre and has facilitated more than 30 national sensitisation workshops, spoke to the high level of preparation that goes into a session in order to ensure full participation.
"It is very important that we create a space where persons can speak from the heart. So we are trying to empower the victim who was disempowered by the action and we're trying to hold the offender accountable," he explained.
With both parties agreeing to go the route of restorative justice, the offender is invited to have two supporters attend on his or her behalf, not as witnesses in the case, but rather to lend moral support and to in effect hold him or her accountable.
The victim is accompanied by supporters and independent observers such as justices of the peace, or a pastor may also be invited to attend, with consent of the victim and offender, in addition to the two facilitators who chair the proceedings.