I write during "Prisoners Week" — a time when attention is given to the plight of prisoners, their families, prison staff, prison chaplains and others involved in the penal system. Those trying to change the system should not be forgotten.
Early last century Sir Thomas Foxley Buxton wrote An Enquiry into whether Crime be produced or prevented by our Present System of Prison Discipline. From this fact we can deduce, firstly, that, when prisons were but in their infancy as penal institutions, their usefulness was already being called in question.
Secondly,' evangelicals took the lead in criticising the system. Foxley Buxton was a member of the "Clapham Sect" — a group of high-class believers who worked for social reform. How our penal system works should still be a concern of evangelicals.
Thirdly, given the proportion of prisoners that re-offend, the same question needs to be asked today as was asked 180 years ago.
The latest evangelical to write on this subject is Charles Colson whose book Convicted has recently been published, co-authored by a former Prison Governor and now Methodist minister, Peter Timms.
Charles Colson served time in prison for his involvement in Watergate. Since his release, as founder of Prison Fellowship, he has worked for penal reform and the welfare of prisoners, their families and victims. His book draws heavily from the American scene but it has been adapted by Peter Timms in the light of British conditions. Although still very American in flavour, its main thesis is applicable to the British system.
Penal reform arouses suspicion. It is considered the preserve of those who see crime in terms of bad social conditions (not sin) and justice in terms of rehabilitation (not retribution). Not so in this case. Colson very clearly traces crime to its roots: "No matter what its aggravating causes, there is only one taproot of crime. It is not some sociological phenomenon; it is sin... We are predisposed toward evil choices." He doesn't so clearly speak of retributive justice — but the concept is there.
Colson accepts the same presuppositions as ourselves. That he advocates a major change of approach to the offender should not awaken the suspicion that he is soft on crime or wobbly on justice. His thesis is that a vital element is missing from our penal system: restitution. At present, the victim of crime is almost totally lost sight of: no reparation is made by the offender to the victim. The prison system does not require or allow the criminal to put back into society what he took out of it.
Restorative Justice is based on three pillars:
1. Crime Causes Injuries that must be Repaired.
Those who sustain loss should be properly compensated, given a voice in the court process and assisted to re-establish their sense of personal security.
2. All Parties Affected by Crime should be Involved in the Response to Crime.
Not only government, but victims, offenders and communities should be actively involved in the criminal justice process.
3. Government and Local Communities must Play Cooperative and Complementary Roles.
Government arrests, prosecutes and sentences offenders. But reconciliation and reintegration can come about only through community involvement.
Colson's approach isn't theoretical but practical and his style anecdotal. Nevertheless, there is some Biblical exposition.
Crime destroys "shalom" — a Hebrew word which meant "the existence of right relationships, harmony, wholeness, completeness. As a result of those relationships the community know security, prosperity and blessings with God". The aim in dealing with crime must be the restoration of "shalom", of these broken relationships. This is done by restitution (shillum) — the offender paying back the victim. Shillum is closely related both to shalom and to shillem (retribution). Hence "restitution was understood to be retributive".
Biblical case-law supports the need for restitution. In one case of assault, the offender had to "pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed" (Exodus 21:19). In the case of theft, "If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep" (Exodus 22:1). Compensation to the victim were clearly essential parts of the concept of justice in the Old Testament.
This book undoubtedly establishes a prima facie case that restorative justice is a Biblical concept, missing from our present system. A much more detailed Biblical/theoretical basis is required. More attention, too, needs to be paid to the relationship between restitution and retribution, and to the place that the State, as wielder of the sword in the New Testament, occupies in relationship to the victim.
We also need to recognise the limitations of this concept. It is not to be thought of as the only one: imprisonment is still necessary for violent offenders.
Significant change in the administration of justice will not radically change the crime scene overnight. Apart from the grace of God, there is no panacea for our present ills. But Restorative Justice is not to be supported on the grounds that it will work wonders (though we hope it will) or that it is less costly. It is to be promoted on the grounds that it is right.
Colson and Timms do us the service of pointing out that a significant element in our penal system has been neglected. Justice demands that this be rectified. The Christian cannot be happy until justice is done.
But how does this Restorative Justice work out in practice? Well, read the book and find out.