The title of this article is provocative, but hopefully not misleading. By “Offenders no More”, I do not wish to suggest that we can ever stop harm from happening. We are indeed capable of committing the greatest, but also the most shameful acts in nature. The title aims to provoke a new way of viewing “offenders” and through this new perspective adopt positive approaches that see them as individuals with whom we (“the victims”, the “community”, the judges, the researchers and so on) are already connected with.
My focus here is to help us go back to what our original justice systems prioritised. That was the act of restoration. And let me explain this further. Too much energy has been spent on the law that a harmful act violates. Here, I want us to think about the bond that pre-exists between us all including “the victim” and the “offender”. For some, this bond is a product of our biology. For others, it is the consequence of our spiritual roots.
I am asking for this reflection as a legally trained servant of justice and without the expectation that the criminal justice system must collapse. My interview with Jim may help you understand my reasons:
Who is Jim and what is the path that brought you here today?
"First and foremost, I am a survivor. Even though I still live with the effects of the crimes perpetrated on me when I was young and defenseless. These crimes or hurts as I call them created barriers and impenetrable walls that kept me in my own personal prison of pain for years. Wanting to get out but never knowing how. From that place of pain and shame, I perpetrated all my crimes against others and against myself!!
Then one day at 22 years of age, I had a near death experience! This broke a big whole in my inside prison. As the years have gone by, I have been able to mend many of the relationships I had broken. I have also mend the one with myself, forgave myself and in the process, could let go of those who had harmed me. If I now come up to one of the barriers or walls and can’t push through, I just go around them. I accept that things will not be the same as if only wondrous things happened for me as a child. From a prayer, we say at our 12 step groups every time I have learned and now, I accepted the things I couldn’t change, I have the courage to change the things I could and I have gained the wisdom to know the difference! Who I am now is someone that cares about humanity. I care about justice for all, in a way that restores and heals relationships.
A far cry from that lonely, terrified and hurt teenager, the age from where all my crimes occurred! I have now given back to humanity, told my story to quarter million teenagers over the past 29 years and continue to do so even still. I believe I have redeemed myself and have grown in compassion from that sharing! It is where my heart lives!"
How do you understand the labels “victim” and “offender” and would any apply to you?
"Victim and Offender are just labels, but they both apply to me. All offenders are victims long before they become offenders. Offenders are victims who have not experienced justice or balance or healing. In other words, the relationships that were broken have not been healed, mended or restored, Yet!"
What does “justice” mean to you?
"Justice, forgiveness, balance, healing relationships are all the same. Forgiveness in Latin means to go back as before, before one was injured or injusticed, if you will. To go back to wholeness, back to health and balance! Wholeness requires both the offender and victim to make it whole. Then everyone is restored to wholeness. Until these imbalances have been restored in the offenders, victims are all left on their own, unhealed, unbalanced or at best partially healed. Yes, one can live with unresolved hurts and still function, but just think about what it would mean to be whole, to receive love from and give love to one’s offender! I have restored many of the relationships I have broken. Some, I will never be able to mend. My inability to find or remember who the people were or their names, makes this difficult or impossible. However, when an opportunity arises I have the willingness to amend.
The kind of justice I am talking about here and how to receive it is what we call Restorative Justice."
Do you think you ever got justice and if yes what was the most important contributing factor?
"As for the ones who harmed me, I have not been able to receive justice from them, because of death or a lack of willingness on their part. However, how I understand forgiveness is this: It is not my job to forgive my offenders - they must forgive themselves. I must only forgive myself. When I have forgiven myself for all the harm I have caused, how can I not look at my offenders and see them as victims first. They did just what I did and harmed others from that hurt. I am the same as them except I have been fortunate enough to find the courage, humility and determination to heal the damage I had done. They were unable for whatever reason to find that courage and humility and determination. That makes them human and still deserving to receive my love and acceptance. Certainly not for their behaviour, but for just being a human. Someone wise once said; “Hurt people, Hurt People!!"
What would you say to people from around the world?
"We who believe in Restorative Justice work tirelessly at making it a major part of the justice system. The system itself needs a restorative process. It is a broken system in many places. Keep doing this work wherever you are applying it. Never give up the struggle. I once read somewhere that you can move a mountain one small pebble at a time!! Blessings to you all!!"
An honour and another way
I had the honour to meet many others who have been in the same position as Jim (particularly young people just starting life). Most of them would still be on their journey to understanding and loving themselves. For some reason, I always felt that I was letting them down before even trying to understand their circumstances and what they needed.
Then, I came to realise that our entire approach to offender rehabilitation was founded in beliefs I did not subscribe to. This approach has traditionally focused on all that is wrong with the offender (psychologically, socially, biologically etc.). It looks for their vices and vulnerabilities, their addiction, their social and financial problems, their broken relationships and their distorted view of the world and then asks us to fix them. Consequently, our energy and care are given to minimising risk through treatment programmes. To no surprise, for decades, policies, funding programmes, laws and practices have focused on setting up and managing a criminal justice system that aims to deal with offenders’ negative traits. No wonder why desistance is seen as a result of being ‘tough on crime’ and criminals. But Jim spoke of another way.