(MintPress) – Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice? This question was the title of a recent New York Times article which told the story of 19-year-old Conor McBride, who walked into the Tallahassee Police Department in March of 2010 and told an officer, “You need to arrest me, I just shot my fiancée in the head. This is not a joke.”
McBride’s story has sparked interest and debate over the concept of restorative justice which focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders.
“The goal of restorative justice is the creation of safe, healthy communities. Safe and healthy communities can arise when there are opportunities for victims to have their needs addressed and when people who harm are integrated into the community as positive, contributing citizens. The attention restorative justice has received speaks volumes to its importance as a powerful tool for improving outcomes,” says Erin Hanusa of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD)
McBride is currently trying to turn his life around, serving a 20 year sentence in a Florida prison, for taking the life of another.
But his victims’ parents, who worked with the NCCD, were actually behind the push for a more lenient sentence, and have become unlikely champions for restorative justice.
Teens’ Murder Stirs National Discussion
McBride shot 19-year-old college student Ann Margaret Grosmaire, his girlfriend of three years, after hours of arguing. She was on her knees, and pleaded with him “No, don’t!”. Those were her last words before McBride shot her in the face. He then drove around before going to the police station to make his confession, and informing law enforcement officials that they could find Ann’s body at his parents’ home.
When police arrived they found Ann unresponsive, but still alive. She was taken to a nearby hospital and placed on life support, however doctors warned her parents, Andy and Kate, Grosmarie, that her prognosis did not look good, and they did not expect her to make a recovery.
Ann’s father said that as he kept vigil over her bedside that night, he felt his daughter say “forgive him”. His initial response was that he could not find it in his heart to do so, that the request was just too much to ask.
But several days later, after he and his wife made the wrenching decision to take his daughter off life-support, he had a change of heart. The New York Times reported that,
“Andy said he was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ. Like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand where Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost her fingers. Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed.”
The Grosmaires have said that they didn’t forgive Conor for his sake, but for their own. “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor,” Kate said. “Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”
Restorative Justice Explored
A growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. justice system is one reason advocates of restorative justice models cites when explaining the need for it. “Citizens feel disconnected, victims are dissatisfied, and those working in the system are frustrated. Policymakers are increasingly concerned about the burgeoning cost of justice in the face of this discontent and the high rates of recidivism that exist,” the NCCD reports.
The organization, which also houses its own restorative justice project, headed by Sujatha Baliga, who worked with Conor and the Grosmaries. In recent years there has been growing interest in new approaches to justice which involve the community and focus on the victim. In a statement the NCCD said, “The current system works on a premise that largely ignores the victim and the community but instead, it focuses on punishing offenders without forcing them to face the impact of their crimes,”
Advocates also say that restorative justice is a more inclusive processes where the goals of justice is rehabilitation.
Now, hundreds, maybe even thousands of restorative justice programs are cropping up across the country, as Americans look for new ways to combat crime.
It is also becoming a global phenomenon, as detailed by Restorative Justice Online, which points out that it has been used in places such as Africa. It highlights the use of local justice practices to deal with chronic prison overcrowding, and a national justice restorative power in responses to genocide and civil war, used in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Its also being utilized in Asia where programs focus on juvenile justice, on regularizing indigenous practices, and on peacemaking and reconciliation in divided societies. The program is also being examined by the Middle East as well as Latin American authorities.
Failure of the Prison System Indicates A Need for a New Approach
It’s no secret that the U.S. prison system has been failing abysmally in rehabilitating offenders for years. In the United States, 53 percent of arrested males and 39 percent of arrested females are re-incarcerated, according to information from the U.S. Department of Justice.
In recent history, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. has increased dramatically, resulting in prisons being filled to capacity creating terrible conditions for inmates. In many prisons, crime and gangs exist and flourish. While the U.S. Justice System has traditionally focused its efforts at the front end of the system, by locking people up, it has not exerted an equal effort to decrease the likelihood of reoffending. With ninety-five percent of newly released ex prisoners returning to the crime hot spots, reoffending is a major problem. In recent statistics almost 7 out of 10 released males will be rearrested and half will be back in prison.
The Case for Restorative Justice
The guiding principles of restorative justice, which works to counter the negative effects of recidivism include:
- Crime is an offense against human relationships.
- Victims and the community are central to justice processes.
- The first priority of justice processes is to assist victims.
- The second priority is to restore the community, to the degree possible.
- The offender has personal responsibility to victims and to the community for crimes committed.
- Stakeholders share responsibilities for restorative justice through partnerships for action.
- The offender will develop improved competency and understanding as a result of the restorative justice experience.
While some have pointed out that forgiveness is neither an expectation nor a goal of restorative justice. Advocates say that restorative justice processes have been shown to reduce reoffending more than prison, for both juveniles and adults. It also can make communities safer by helping keep low-level offenders out of prison, giving them the chance to receive treatment and services.
It can help victims and their family members heal, as those who participated in restorative justice practices reported high levels of satisfaction with the process as well as reduced post-traumatic stress disorder.
And, there’s an economic benefit to such programs, as restorative justice processes cost up to eight times less than traditional juvenile and criminal justice processes.
“If you want to solve a problem, you cannot solve it if you continue to think the same way you were thinking when you created it,” the NCCD quotes Albert Einstein as saying.
Isn’t it time we take Einstein’s advice to heart while working to improve the outcome of justice systems in the U.S and beyond?
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