Alternative Justice in Focus: A survey of new methods and their potential

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Notions of what justice is are always evolving. There always questions as to whether the criminal justice system is capable of providing true justice. There are three constituencies involved – the offender, the victims and the community as a whole. Providing justice to all three is a tricky proposition. In recent years, some communities have tried to implement more holistic systems to serve victims and perpetrators.

Restorative justice is one way in which communities have tried to go beyond the “lock ’em all up” notion of criminal justice. Generally stated, this type of justice seeks to rehabilitate offenders within the community while also allowing victims to seek restitution in various forms. This paper will discuss various forms of restorative justice and evaluate the potential of such methods as shaming and peacemaking as alternatives to traditional criminal justice system treatments.

Why Alter native Methods?

The resources of the criminal justice system are being stretched to their limits. In the vast majority of cases plea bargains are taken in lieu of criminal trials. Since the war on drugs began all phases of the justice system are being strained.

The plea process makes the system more efficient, but whether it affords justice is another question. According to Boutellier: “The demand for criminal justice cannot be fulfilled by the traditional criminal justice system: it is too limited in scope, means and effectiveness” (1996).

Justice for the victim may in some cases be a casualty of the current system. Rarely can victims have all their questions answered and feelings expressed in the courtroom context. In recent years, criminal justice research has focused on alternative methods to achieving justice. The purposes are twofold. First, alternative justice aims to give crime victims a greater voice and more participation in the resolution of their cases.

Secondly, it tries to address the root causes of crime and explore avenues of rehabilitation for the offender. An important side benefit is that the more of these cases that can be handled by alternative means the less the strain on the traditional criminal justice system. These are currently still just theoretical constructs but alternative justice methods have shown some promise.

New Methods

In some cases victim/offender conferences are used to bring the two sides together in a professionally mediated forum. The victim’s needs take precedence and the offender is expected to admit guilt. A restitution plan can then be set up between the parties. The victim is provided with an ongoing support network in order to process the events and facilitate forgiveness.

The offender may be able to decrease or eliminate his jail time for participation in the conference format. The offender also gets to talk openly, as facilitated by the mediator, about the events and what caused them.

This can be an important factor in preventing recidivism. One study found that offenders who felt that “police had not taken the time to listen to their side of the story were 36% more likely to be reported for assaulting the same victim” (Sakai, 2003).

Shaming is a technique designed to increase offender awareness of the damage they have caused and ultimately re-connect them with the community. Reintegrative shaming requires both an offender admission of guilt and the eventual forgiveness of the community.

Research results on shaming are spotty at best. Zhang and Zhang found that “neither parental nor peer reintegrative shaming had the effect of reducing predatory delinquency” (Zhang and Zhang, 2004).

If justice is defined in solely statistical terms it would appear that shaming is not an effective tool. Researchers point out however that in combination with other expectations reintegrative shaming can help to re-set community expectations which could decrease crime in the long run.

The concept of shaming is based in part on Procedural Justice Theory. Under this framework a key element of the process is to convey respect to the offender, not for his actions but for him as a human being. During shaming and conferences the offender can enlist support from people to speak on his behalf in a way not present at criminal trials, which are solely focused on character assassination.

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