Crossing the divide

In a recent blog entry, a conservative blogger in the United Kingdom calls for more attention to restorative justice.

Citing a speech by conservative MP Alan Duncan, the blogger suggests that restorative justice may be more than a way to reduce the revolving door or “carousel” of prison; indeed, it could have substantial benefits for both victims and offenders.  The blogger concludes that “It makes intuitive sense that many victims would benefit from Restorative Justice, but Duncan is making the interesting and important observation that offenders can also benefit.”

In his speech, MP Duncan embraced the idea that facing the victim has the potential to help the offender realize the impact of his or her offending:  “The hardened ex-offender who for the first time looks his elderly victim in the eye and sees her distress often finds it a challenge to remain hardened for long.”  “It’s very simple,” says Duncan:  “if I become the Prisons Minister, I will be a strong advocate and supporter of RJ.”

Duncan does not call for more punishment, more prisons.  In fact, he argues that “…the idea that on its own ‘prison works’ is unsophisticated and simplistic….  I want busy prisons, and I want a much more streamlined system to harness all efforts to assist the offender community.  RJ works – when it comes to victims, offenders, the community, and reducing reoffending, it works.”

It has often been my experience that restorative justice can span the conservative-liberal divide.  Concerns for victims and for reducing the costs of imprisonment are often common to both.  The concept of offenders facing up to what they have done makes intuitive sense to many.  Values such as responsibility, respect and relationship are often shared along the spectrum.  What we mean by these values and ideas, however, and what motivates us to embrace them, are crucial issues.

The lessons to be gleaned from the movement against indeterminate sentencing in the U.S. are instructive.  Eventually both progressives and conservatives came together to replace indeterminate sentences with determinate sentences motivated by a just deserts philosophy.  The resulting lengthened mandatory sentences dramatically increased the prison population.   While there was some confluence of policy positions, the underlying values and motivations of the various parties were quite different.  The results have been in many ways catastrophic.

Can a similar outcome be avoided with the restorative justice movement?  I don’t know the answer, but I do think the likelihood of such unintended consequences might be reduced if restorative justice can encourage a dialogue about our needs, obligations, values and goals.

One way to pursue this discussion might be by sharing our stories with one another. Rather than sharing our positions and beliefs, we might share the stories that have shaped our lives and thinking.  Stories can be a powerful way to understand and connect with one another that moves us beyond the assumptions that we often make about the other.

A friend of mine has been participating in a long-running dialogue in which those in favor and those opposed to abortion share their stories with one another.  Through this process, participants have found understanding and ongoing relationships across this great divide.

Similarly, a group of biblical scholars found understanding and formed relationships in spite of their theological differences by sharing with one another the stories that shaped their understanding of the Bible.  (See Ray Gingerich and Earl Zimmerman, Telling Our Stories:  Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture.)

Dialogue is essential and sharing stories is one important way to dialogue.

Stories make sense of our lives.  Stories communicate who we are and what made us.  In her opening chapter entitled “Stories Matter” (Telling True Stories by Mark Kramer & Wendy Call), Jacqui Banaszynski puts it like this:  “Stories are our prayers…. Stories are parables…. Stores are history…. Stories are music…. Stories are our soul….”