Monday, June 25, 2007

Restorative Justice and Transcending Victimhood

"Transcendence is the only alternative to extinction."
- Vaclav Havel

Another update from the Restorative Justice Conference in Kerrville. On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Howard Zehr, a pioneer in victim-offender mediation gave a particularly thoughtful plenary address that should supply readers a good introduction to many recurring themes at this event.

Dr. Zehr was concerned that restorative justice be a victim driven process, not just for the benefit of the offender. "Victim's experiences are central to justice," said Zehr, who illustrated his talk with anecdotes from his book, "Transcending,” which features interviews and photographs of victims of violent crime.

Many victims, he said, have trouble describing the trauma they've experienced verbally. They frequently use metaphors, he said, instead of directly descriptive language. One victim told him it was as though she were climbing a ladder, fell, and the rungs on a ladder were broken so she could never get back where she was. Another said, she felt like "shattered glass you try to put back together, but it's never quite the same." Another said he felt, "Rage with a lot of chili pepper on top of it."

One thing he said victims aren't seeking is "closure," because most don't believe it's possible. One of the family members of an Austin yogurt-shop murder victim told him, "Closure – I hate that word with a purple passion. People use the world closure to give people like us hope, but it won't happen."

After many such interviews, he said, Zehr settled on the word “transcendence” to describe the process of getting over victimization - to rise above the negative and ordinary limits. "Transcendence," he declared, "begins in trauma."

When crime happens, he said, it can create great stress for victims, even minor crimes. There is spiral of emotions, a sense of disbelief, fear, vulnerability, a loss of control. Some victims complain they can't get the person out of their mind, that they haunt their dreams, or that they can't get rid of their anger. They feel an isolation no one understands, anger at those who try to comfort them, shame and humilation. Some feel angry at God. Others turn their anger inward.

Victims typically have many questions: Why me or why my family member? They often want to know the details of crimes, what else happened that they didn't know about, and most frequently,why the offender did what they did?

In general, said Zehr, victimization authors three crises: A crisis of identity, a crisis of relationships (who can I trust?), and crisis of meaning. Transcending these crises requires a "re-creation of meaning" of oneself and the world. They must reconfigure their lives, "re-story" their life - they must somehow create a new narrative of self.

Part of this process is encapsulating experiences of victimhood and making them part of your own story, drawing boundaries around them, trying to articulate new metaphors for self. People seldom have adequate words for this process, he said, so they use metaphors. A central part of truly restoring victims to wholeness is enabling them findnew metaphors to transform their narrative of humiliation into stories of honor and vindication.

When someone wrongs us we need to be vindicated, Zehr said. Victims want to know what their own responsibility was for what happened, if any, but most importantly for offenders to take responsibility for what they did. We search for ways to replace humiliation with honor.

A particularly important insight was Zehr's observation that the failure to make victims whole contributes to future crimes, because frequently victims later victimize others. Victims become offenders when have no other outlets, he said.

To keep that from happening, victims need safety, answers, truth-telling from everyone involved (authorities as well as the offender), empowerment (which the system generally denies them) and most importantly vindication and a chance to "re-story" what happened to them in a way that lets them regain honor.

In many ways, said Zehr, the current criminal justice system denies victims almost everything they need. He quoted Judy Herman saying that if you set out to design a system to create post traumatic stress for a victim, you couldn't do better than a court of law. This theme was repeated in other conference events so far - that the court process places unfair demands on victims that exacerbate their emotional response to crime instead of help them.

Zehr said the traditional criminal justice system assumes a crime violates the law of the state, that violations create guilt, and that the state's goal should be to identify offenders and dish out punishment. The central focus is offender-driven, he said, making sure perpetrators “get what they deserve.”

Under a Restorative Justice model, violations create obligations for which offenders should be accountable. Restorative Justice asks: "Who's been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?"

"Restorative Justice is not about forgiveness or reconciliation," he said. "That may happen but that's not what it's about. It's about letting victims and offenders reconcile differences and repair harm," said Zehr.

Many restorative justice programs feature facilitated victim-offender mediation to negotiate agreements about what ought to be done. Other approaches don't involve direct encounters. Here in Texas, Bridges to Life brings victims to talk to offenders who committed similar crimes but AREN'T the offenders who harmed them. (I talked today with a social work grad student from UT who volunteered for the program last year. She described it as remarkable, inspiring experience.)

In principle, said Zehr, restorative justice ought to be the best thing ever for victims because it puts victims at the center of the process. It generates higher money restitution rates, reduced trauma and stress, and higher satisfaction among victims where it's been implemented. Studies show victims get a short-term post-traumatic stress reduction from restorative programs, and they're more satisfied than their counterparts in formal justice system.

But he questioned whether all restorative justice programs as constituted are as accountable to victims as they should be and involve them in significant ways, not just speaking for them. Many RJ advocates, he said, came to the movement as offender advocates, and some are uncomfortable championing crime victims. Zehr said these are the signposts of a victim-centered program:
  • Are victims and advocates represented on planning groups and boards?
  • Is the desire to help victims genuine or is it motivated by a desire to help offenders?
  • Are programs really taking seriously justice needs of victims?
  • Do victims have information, opportunities and resources to identify their own solutions?

Restorative Justice, he said is about changing the questions asked in the criminal justice system. Not what laws are broken, but who's been hurt, what are their needs, and what process can we use to meet those needs and help them transcend their victimization?

Good stuff to kick off the conference. I'm taking a lot of notes but have had little blogging time amidst the jam-packed schedule, so look for more posts from the event over the next few days.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good foundation on Restorative Justice. I'm anxious to hear about any conference ideas on how we can move from the current "offender focus" to a more balanced/restorative system. How do we go from the politics of "tough on criminals" to something like, "smart on crime and its effects?"

nandabean said...

I have always wondered how Zehr's insights apply to non-violent drug offenses. Drug crime is often characterized as a "victimless" crime because the dealer's clients are willing participants. It could be argued that the families of the dealer's clients are victimized, and it might be helpful to establish creative contact between dealers and their client's loved ones. But, as Zehr points out, drug crime, like all crime, is presently considered an offense against the state, and only the state can demand accountability. Hopefully, someone at the conference will apply restorative principles to non-violent drug crime . . . after all, that's the crime most of the young black males who are swelling our prison populations have been charged with.

Anonymous said...

Hey I know that you write about when the government loses sensitive personal information of citizens. Check out this new federal report - talk about identity theft!

Mariamariacuchita said...

Well done, grits!

nandabean comments:"presently considered an offense against the state, and only the state can demand accountability."

It is easy sometimes to forget that we also have a civil court system where victims can seek remunerative redress and compensation.

While often used as a last means when the criminal courts fail them, and sometimes in addition to that process when successful, it is another possibility for gaining restitution, help for paying for counseling lost wages during the acute trauma period, and whatever Crime Victims' Compensation does not cover related to the crime.

Although money is never a substitution for what was had before the crime, some victims might consider such restitution part of the regaining of their honor and empowerment when a jury believes them and awards them money.