Myth 2: Restorative justice is a get out of jail free card for the offender.
Fact: Restorative Justice (RJ) advocates for a healthy complement to and in certain cases of minor offences, an alternative to retributive justice. RJ does not do away with punishment, but advocates for restitution and repair which are punishments away from imprisonment in certain cases.
Restorative justice (RJ) is a system of dispute resolution that involves the victim, the offender and the community coming together to repair the harm caused by criminal behaviour. Its major aim is to heal the victims’ wounds and restore offenders to law-abiding citizens while requiring offenders to take responsibility for their actions and for the harm they have caused.
Through the lens of Restorative Justice crime is viewed primarily as an offence against human relationships and secondarily a violation of the law. Every Restorative process must be voluntary and acceptance of guilt by the offender is a prerequisite for the process to occur although certain theories have argued that acceptance of guilt is not mandatory.
Structurally, RJ ensures that in cases of minor offences, other measures short of imprisonment may be adopted and for serious offences, custodial sentences may be required for the purpose of correction and rehabilitation of the offender. It would, therefore, be wrong to assume that the central goal of Restorative Justice is to serve as a get out of jail free card.
There have been several cases where Restorative Justice was used in conjunction with a custodial sentence and one of such cases is that of Jacob Dunne.
A 28-year-old trainee paramedic, James Hodgkinson, was killed in 2011 from a single punch to his head. He had been out in Nottingham with his father, brother and three friends after watching a cricket match. His attacker, Jacob Dunne, pleaded guilty and served 13 months in prison for manslaughter. Later James’ mother, Joan Scourfield, met Jacob through Restorative Justice. Below are excerpts from Jacob’s story culled from “the forgiveness project” :
‘My life changed forever the day I handed myself in at the police station where I was told I was being arrested on suspicion of murder. Sitting in that holding cell I felt shocked, scared, confused, and very angry. A month earlier I had been out celebrating a friend’s 18th birthday. It was July 2011 and I’d been drinking most of the day with a group of friends who over the years I’d come to respect and care more for than my own family.
In secondary school, I had lost the message of education. I quickly became the kid who was problematic, spending most of my days in a room by myself or skiving class. By the age of 15, I had been excluded from two schools and didn’t bother showing up to sit my GCSE’s. I developed beliefs and values that were only ever going to get me into trouble, especially a feeling that I always had to defend my friends if they got into trouble. This is how I became immersed in a ‘gang’ mind-set.
Towards the end of that July night, I was drinking alone in a bar when I received a call from one of my friends saying that there was trouble kicking off in town. When I got down there I saw a friend of mine squaring off with another man. That’s when I threw a punch that changed everything. I ran from the scene unaware that the man I had hit would later tragically pass away. This man I now know was called James.
I put the incident out of my mind until one morning a month later the police started questioning and then arresting my friends. When they finally came for me I was the only one to be charged and to receive a custodial sentence. In prison, I was consumed by anger and began to blame my friends for stitching me up. My overwhelming feeling was one of self-pity as if I was the only victim of these tragic circumstances.
There was no space in custody for me to reflect on what I’d done. No one was there to challenge me, and I was surrounded by other inmates who shared the same common criminal values I did. By the time I was released I had become an even worse person than when I went in, with no hope for my future. Two months later, however, my probation officer contacted me to ask if I had ever heard of restorative justice. She told me that David and Joan, the parents of James, wanted to ask me some questions about that night. It was at this moment that I realized there were people involved in this crime who had been more harmed than me. After some reflection, I decided that the very least I could do was help them make sense of what had happened.
We began to communicate through mediators from the restorative justice charity Remedi, and after several months of letters and hearing in detail what they and their family had gone through, I became so overwhelmed with guilt and shame that I decided I had to move forward in a more positive way. What amazed me was how much David and Joan supported me in trying to make better choices, and as a result, I began to update them on my progress through mediators and letters. During this time, I was encouraged to go back into education and over the next two and a half years I succeeded far beyond what I believed I was capable of. Then finally, after I’d gained access into University to study Criminology, we all felt comfortable enough to meet each other face-to-face.
Opening the door into the room where both David and Joan were waiting was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, but I knew how important it was that I looked them in the eye and told them how sorry I was. The meeting lasted an hour and a half. To hear them talk about their love for James and about the type of person he has affected me deeply, and reinforced my determination to make something of myself and to do everything I could to prevent others going through the kind of trauma they’d gone through.
Although I expressed how sorry I was to them, I also had a need to thank them for initiating our correspondence and for having the courage to meet me. If they had never challenged me with those difficult questions I would most likely still be in prison today. It’s incredible to me that those who I hurt the most have judged me the least.”
From this, we see restorative justice from the perspective of the Offender, now we shall view it from the Victim’s perspective, from the same Jacob Dunne’s story. Below are excerpts from the Victim’s story:
“As soon as I got the call I rushed to Nottingham to be by James’s side. He didn’t look injured. He just had one small bruise on his chin. But there was a bleed to his brain and when surgery didn’t work he was put on life support. When he couldn’t breathe for himself there was no way forward and after nine days I asked for the machine to be turned off.
The moment I walked out of intensive care to tell the others that James had passed away the homicide team were waiting for me. From then on instead of being able to grieve and bury James our focus had to be on the investigation. I longed for my own space, and to be with my family but post-mortems followed which meant we couldn’t have the funeral for another 11 weeks. It was a kind of torture. I had been divorced from James’s father, David, for five years now but we were very united throughout this time.
19-year-old Jacob Dunne was arrested soon after. It helped me tremendously that he pleaded guilty because it meant we wouldn’t have to face a long drawn out trial. Jacob was sentenced to four years for manslaughter but in the end because of his age and because he had pleaded guilty he only served 13 months. I felt incredibly angry and bitter about this. How could James’s life be worth only 13 months! This was no deterrent to stop others. The short sentence just compounded the pain.
Victim Support visited me and David regularly throughout that time. They too were totally bemused as to how Jacob could have received such a short sentence. Then one day a volunteer told us about restorative justice and suggested it might be a way of relieving some of the bitterness we felt. I’d never heard of restorative justice but they explained that if Jacob agreed we could make contact with him through a third party to get some of our questions answered. A group called Remedi was able to establish that Jacob was willing to take part. I wanted to know whether he had achieved anything from going to prison.
We soon learnt that prison had done nothing for him. He hadn’t been offered any courses and he’d been released with nowhere to live, which was crazy! The mediation went on for quite some time with volunteers from Remedi coming to speak to us and then speaking to Jacob. We also learnt that in prison, because his friends [who had been present at the scene of the crime] hadn’t stood by him, Jacob felt like the victim himself which really shocked us. At the same time, Jacob couldn’t understand why we cared about his life and why we wanted to see him find a way forward. And with that, he did start to change. He got a job packing in a warehouse and he started studying for GCSEs. He passed his exams and after doing access to university course a year later we felt ready to meet him.
The meeting took place in Suffolk. It was very hard. You don’t know what you’re going to say or how you’re going to react. We arrived at the building and were taken into a room while Jacob was in a different room. I think it must have been the hardest thing for him to walk through that door and see us. I remembered him from the police mug shot, but he looked so different in real life. He was a young man, not a monster. We were introduced by the facilitator and began to talk about what had happened on the night and why he had hit James. When I told him what James was like as a person, I saw Jacob’s eyes fill up. We all shed a few tears. I could see he was deeply remorseful and that gave me hope he could change. We agreed to build a future together by talking publicly about restorative justice and raising awareness of the catastrophic effects of a single punch.
I left the room that day feeling a little bit lighter, hopeful that Jacob would turn his life around. I don’t feel bitter anymore about the short sentence. I don’t say it’s right but I think we’ve done more for Jacob on the outside than the prison ever did on the inside. We helped to give him a different outlook. People say they could never meet the person who killed their child but I didn’t set out to do any of this. What I set out to do was to get the questions that were keeping me awake at night answered. It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable with the word forgiveness. I used to feel that if I forgive Jacob it meant I’d forgotten James but now that Jacob has done so well, forgiving him feels really natural. Forgiveness for me means being at peace, letting go of the bitterness and letting Jacob into my life. I’ve grown fond of him.”
We can tell from this emotional story that Restorative Justice is not handed out as a “get out of jail free card” but a means of support and healing for the victim, and a means of rehabilitation, reintegration and desistance from re-offending for the offender.
The Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019, has also made it possible for restorative Justice to occur after imprisonment. There are four (4) stages at which the restorative justice approach may be used in Nigeria:
i. Pre Trial stage
ii. Trial stage
iii. During imprisonment; and
Iv. Post-imprisonment stage.
A Restorative approach involves the offender facing the victim and the community who ware affected by his actions and it has proven to be effective despite the misconceptions as it provides an 85 per cent victim satisfaction rate and a 14 per cent reduction in the rate of re-offending. The Nigerian Criminal Justice system is in dire need of Restorative Justice especially to decongest her correctional centers. We urge you to lend a voice in advocating for the immediate and effective implementation of Restorative Justice in Nigeria.