On the left side of the stage sits a middle-aged lady who, when she speaks, looks like she is holding back a torrent of emotion. Each sentence is carefully considered before she can speak it, and when she speaks her eyes roll upwards like she’s trying not to cry. On the right hand of the stage is a small, older lady who seems unusually comfortable with being there. She is holding her head up, looking around at the audience whilst the first lady speaks. When she speaks later, she speaks clearly and eloquently. In between them both sits a tall, young man. He looks successful, smart – might work with computers. When the ladies speak, he keeps his head down and looks like he is feeling their emotions with them.
Yesterday, I attended a conference about Restorative Justice. It was opened by Crispin Blunt MP, then we had talks by academics and big players in criminal/restorative justice circles. All great stuff. But then, halfway through the day, these three people were brought to the stage.
The lady on the left explains how a male had attacked and assaulted this lady’s husband on their doorstep. She described the trauma this incident had put their entire family through, and how they had been denied their ‘day in court’ because of a late guilty plea. The system is so poor that they only then found out the case result via the local press, along with a string of horror stories about the offender. She told us about the day she met with the offender, on her own because her family were not supportive of Restorative Justice. She told us about how it had enabled her to ask questions, to hold the person to account, to be able to let them know just how it felt, and to be able to start to put it behind her. She also talked about how it had completely shifted her thinking about the offender and the offence, and that she had needed to ‘repackage’ them for her family. Her families views about the offender were driven by the press stories, but she had now met the offender and seen them as a person.
The man in the middle was asked to talk next. He talked about an incident in a nightclub, where he ended up in a row with a group of males. Fearing he might be about to receive a beating, he lashed out at one of the males in the group and then left the area. Presumably, he had done some damage to the guy. He was arrested the very next day and immediately admitted the offence, deeply ashamed of what he had done. As part of his order, he requested to meet the victim, (and the victim’s mum), to say sorry. He described the meeting as the toughest thing he had ever done. He had been late to the meeting because he was stood outside for 15 minutes, trying to rack up the courage to face this man’s mother. He raised his hands to show how even now, he gets sweaty palms thinking about it.
The lady on the right was actually a retired magistrate. She had been burgled and requested to meet ‘her offender’ in prison. She described ‘tearing into him’ about the massive impact his offence had on her, but also relayed the sad fact that he had been so addicted to drugs and such a prolific offender that he barely remembered burgling her house. Following their meeting, she has remained in contact with him and supports him.
The man in the middle spoke again and said that he had been shown such acceptance by his victim’s mother that it had spurred him on. He has since set up his own business, and changed his life around. He stated that having been shown affirmation and forgiveness, he could shake off the identity of a criminal and be confident in himself. He said that he had been restored.
And I love Restorative Justice because of this. It is not a soft option – for most offenders it is a terrifying prospect and it has more impact than probably any other work we could do with young offenders. And yet, it can have so many benefits for both victims and offenders. Time and time again, in meetings I have facilitated, I have seen hostility and hurt turn into remorse and compassion. But the thing that gets me every time I see it, is the moment that nearly always comes where both sides let their guards down and we can get rid of the idea of ‘victim’ and ‘offender’. Instead, we begin to talk about an incident, and it’s effects, and what needs to happen to put that right. Sometimes all that requires is for the offender to show understanding. Sometimes that involves some physical act of reparation. But this seems to me to be the point at which restoration begins, for both parties.
At the end of their presentation, these three people were given a spontaneous and lengthy round of applause. And then came my favourite moment of the day – almost a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment. During our clapping, lady on the left reached over, grabbed man in the middle’s arm and gave it a squeeze and a rub. He looked at her and she smiled at him like she was proud of him and was willing him on.