Restitutional Justice Balancing the rights of victims and the rehabilitation of the offender
Increasingly, citizens are feeling less secure about themselves and their property. Gang-related and drug-related crimes are on the increase in unbelievable proportions. Respect for private property is at an all-time low. Police action upon notification of theft is often limited to giving a file number over the phone so the injured party can at least file a claim with the insurance company and, after having paid the deductible get some sort of compensation.
Enormous amounts of money are allocated by governments in an attempt to curb theft and vandalism, especially by young people. We are reaping the results of decades of secular teaching so prevalent in our public schools and further promoted over the airwaves that “if it feels good, do it.” The Young Offenders Act excuses parents for failing to supervise the behaviour of their children, and excuses criminals, especially juvenile offenders, by placing the blame on events of their past. The sad reality is that often a background search confirms that the offender is him – or herself a victim – a victim of abuse and neglect.
In this vicious circle, the victim of crime is the big loser. In the process of finding excuses for the criminal, the courts give “slap on the wrist” sentences, and the victim of crime is forgotten. The trauma of having one's personal security or property violated receives little or no attention, let alone compensation.
In November 1992, the Vancouver Sun reported on a young offender who admitted he found it hard to believe that he did not serve more than a day in jail for as many as seven assault convictions throughout his teenage years. He finally got a longer spell in jail when, at the age of 17, he punched and kicked a man to death. The young offender said he “would have been more frightened of jail and might have tried harder to refrain from violence if he had received a tougher sentence when he first appeared before the courts for assault at age 14.”
What a tragedy lies behind a story such as this! Where were the parents to guide this boy? What happened to the seven victims of assault and the next-of-kin of the man beaten to death? No mention is made of a compensation for the victims. This prompts the question: is there not a better way to deal with crime, especially crimes of theft and vandalism? A more just way, providing a better balance of justice between the victim and the offender?
The Biblical way of dealing with crime insists on restitution for the victim for damage to person and property. In addition, emphasis is placed on the rehabilitation of the offender and restoration of the relationship broken by the offence. The Christian Heritage Party (CHP) has adopted policies which find their roots in divine law, and include these four vital elements of restitutional justice:
- Restitution is justice according to divine law.
- Restitution is based on the recognition of the right of ownership of property.
- Restitution restores broken relationships and incurred losses.
- Restitution is practical, effective and a proven deterrent.
Harm to one's person or property is first and foremost a crime against the victim. In today's society, if a case goes to court it becomes a case of the Crown versus the offender. Nowhere does Scripture speak about crimes against the state. Judges in Israel would award restitution to the wronged individual based on God-given standards. Read Exodus 22, and you will be struck by the Supreme Lawgiver's attention to detail.
Sometimes judges sentence offenders to do community work as part of their penalty. This may be seen as a step in the right direction. However, the negative aspect is that community service still highlights the “crime against the state” idea of justice, and relegates the wrong done to the victim to a secondary status. If emphasis was instead placed on the wrong done to the victim and on the need for restitution, a judge could introduce the additional element of restoration. When restitution is made, the previously broken relationship between the victim and the offender is once again restored.
The CHP, as early as 1987, adopted as one of its policies the establishment of a criminal-injuries compensation board to provide immediate relief to the victims of crime in cases where restitution in kind cannot be made because of the circumstances of the responsible party, or because restitution is to be made over a longer period of time.
A major improvement could be introduced, in my opinion, if instead of incarceration (at high cost to the taxpayer) those guilty of nonviolent crimes were ordered to make full restitution, including the cost of apprehension and prosecution. If funds or ability to make immediate restitution is lacking, then the previously mentioned criminal-injuries compensation board should be directed by the judge to make advance payment to the victim. The offender in this case should be compelled, under court supervision, to perform community work at an assessed fair hourly wage as an alternate means to make restitution. The offender, in any event, should be brought face-to-face with the victim, in a non-confrontational setting, in order to bring home the hurt his or her actions have caused, and to facilitate restoration of relationships.
As I mentioned earlier, the offender is him or herself often a victim and in need of help. Close attention should therefore be given to the possibilities of rehabilitation for the offender through counselling, change of environment and possible educational training. Such help should include mandatory participation in instruction of responsible citizenship and respect for law and order.
I am firmly convinced that this approach would much closer represent a Christian view of justice than the present secular system. I believe that it would greatly deter theft, vandalism and assault, especially by juvenile offenders. It was interesting to hear a recent news report quoting the Ontario Minister of Justice who advocated separating violent crimes from property crimes to free up the justice system and seek more restitution for damages. Besides being ethically right, CHP policies make good common sense. Were CHP's ideas implemented, they would give judges the ability to instill in the public's mind the feeling that during a trial the victim's plight would be properly recognized, and offenders would retain their dignity by giving them the ability to pay for their crime and be restored.