By Themba Mkhize
Jamaica’s relationship with violent crime is debilitating.
The compounding economic losses brought on by high crime rates pale in comparison to the trauma Jamaicans contend with on a daily basis. Surveys informing the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) business and consumer confidence indices showed that COVID-19 related health issues could not displace crime as Jamaica’s foremost national issue. That is to say that even in the midst of a pandemic, with rising unemployment and contracting incomes, the Jamaican business community has pointed to crime as the number one issue facing the country.
Furthermore, the criminal justice system in Jamaica is not especially effective at remedying trauma. For one, it often averts the gaze of the specific victim, focusing instead on the broader public interest. According to the Jamaica Sentencing Guidelines, which were published by the Supreme Court as a tool for judges, the purpose of sentencing is to arrive at a just response to an offence by facilitating retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation – the “classical principles of sentencing.”
The Ministry of Justice has been promoting restorative justice to counterbalance the deficiencies of traditional responses to crime. It ensures that the victim’s emotional account and position on reconciliation are accounted for in ways that the traditional criminal justice system does not.
Restorative Justice is a philosophy and approach to justice which situates offences within the community. It gives weight to both the specific harm done to the victim and the offender’s relationships with the community, allowing the victim/s, the offender/s and the community to play a role in addressing the offence and mending broken links. When successful, mutually agreed terms of redress are agreed to, leading to resolution and reconciliation.
Restorative Justice helps us to envision the roles that stakeholders can play in the delivery of justice. The criminal justice system is the most popular method for seeking redress after an offence. However, the imposition of penalties often from a legalistic position does not always foster a space for healing. In fact, many times the opposite occurs – adversarial relationships between the offender and the society take shape and harden, leading to further destruction down the line.
Taking a practical example, an old woman who was robbed of a sum of money by a young teenager in her community, through restorative justice, has the opportunity to seek redresses through mediation once he is detained. Once interested in this route, she can better represent her broader interests outside of seeing the young man institutionalized/imprisoned.
Instead of incarceration, the old woman may be more interested in facilitating an employment opportunity from which she must be repaid with interest in installations. She may also stipulate mandatory enrolment in a community development programme which focuses on volunteerism and environmental restoration, shining light on what may be a new world of constructive elements within the community. In so doing, there is at least the potential for restoration, reconciliation and rehabilitation of the young man.
Examining the flip side of the coin, the traditional route still exists. With the imprisonment of the young man, she stands the loss of the robbery unless she files a civil suit. This is an impractical pursuit since, in all likelihood, he would not be able to afford to pay her back, leading to frustration of further legal sanctions. She may also have lost the opportunity to contribute to his reformation, and anger may fester on both sides for a very long time.
It is easy to see the young man in an overcrowded correctional facility eating an unsavoury mash, not because his jaw isn’t working after the beatings and abuse, but because that is all the food on offer. Just as easily, we can see him returning to his community with new know-how and new underworld connections, ready to expand his criminal operations now understanding what is possible for him if he goes for it.
Restorative justice is no panacea. It is a constructive, non-retributive means of empowering victims and communities. In the grand scheme, it will likely be more effective than temporary detention and incapacitation in cases of petty crime. Among hardened criminals, traditional methods inspire more security, despite an uninspiring track record viewed through the rates of violent crime.
Restorative justice seeks to divert as many adult offenders away from the impersonal retributive cycles of incarceration and recidivism. This is substituted for what the Canadian Department of Justice explains to be “non-adversarial, non-retributive approach[es]… that emphasizes healing in victims, meaningful accountability of offenders, and the involvement of citizens in creating healthier, safer communities.” There is a larger place for restorative justice in the administration of corrections in Jamaica, but its role in healing the traumas caused by crime can only be as effective as citizens are willing to partake, and as the government finds success in tackling the root causes of crime.
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