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As Johnny puts the finishing touches on the script for our next show “Forgiven/Forgotten”, we thought International Restorative Justice Week would be an apt time to write a blog post describing a bit more about  why we TOTB folks are so excited about partnering with MCC’s Restorative Justice programs for this next big venture!

A few years ago, as part of my Peace and Conflict Studies degree, I was fortunate to get a spot in Judah Oudshoorn’s PACS 302 Special Topics: Restorative Justice class. We learned a LOT that term through readings, lectures, role playing, case studies and even special guest lectures with victims and offenders.  Though I’m sure I won’t do the course justice, I will offer a quick “Coles notes” version of what I learned for anyone who’s interested! Below you’ll find some info about the history of Restorative Justice, it’s key principles, what it looks like in practice, how community members are part of the solution, and how all this relates to Theatre of the Beat!

History

Restorative Justice’s roots lie in Aboriginal healing traditions around the world, as well as the non-retaliatory responses to violence encouraged by many faith communities.  The modern day restorative justice movement began just over 30 years ago in Elmira, Ontario when a thoughtful probation officer challenged young vandals to meet their victims, negotiate compensation and come back with a report on the damage the victims suffered. Since this date, the philosophy of restorative justice has offered an interesting counter to the traditional western legal system.

Key Principles

Traditional conceptualizations of justice ask three questions: 1) What rules were broken; (2) Who did it; and (3) What do they deserve? Unfortunately, this tends to leave those who were harmed out of the process by only focusing on the punishment of offenders — punishment that studies show is often ineffective or counter-productive in the long run for society.  Instead, Restorative Justice asks three different questions: 1) Who has been harmed? 2) What are their needs? 3) Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

Restorative Justice views violence as a symptom of a society out of balance, and aims to involve all who have a stake in a specific offense in a collective effort to make things “as right as possible”. RJ pioneer Howard Zehr writes that if Restorative Justice had to be boiled down to one word, that word would be respect: respect for all, even those who are different from us, even those who are our enemies.  It’s important to note though, that Restorative Justice isn’t “soft” on crime, and it doesn’t let offenders “get away” with anything! Instead, it promotes safety for victims by validating their need for healing while keeping ex-offenders accountable for behaving responsibly.

RJ in Practice

Principles of RJ are put into action through a variety of programs and practices, the most common being different kinds of victim/offender meditations, community conferencing and circle processes. These programs can be initiated by victims or offenders, and can occur before, during, instead of, or after criminal sentencing. Although initially used for minor offenses, today RJ approaches are available in some communities for the most severe forms of criminal violence. These approaches and practices are also spreading beyond the criminal justice system to schools, the workplace and religious institutions.

Mennonite Central Committee is involved in many important Restorative Justice Initiatives. To find out more (and perhaps get a better idea of what RJ is than I’ve been able to offer here, check out http://mcco.ca/restorative)

The Role of the Community

Restorative Justice professionals work hard to make things “as right as possible” for victims and offenders, but their work is not complete without the involvement of the community.  Because crime affects whole communities, community members are often deeply affected when  those who have offended return home from serving time in criminal justice system.  Theatre of the Beat’s Forgiven/Forgotten (written by Johnny Wideman) explores the question of what to do when an ex-offender who has been recently released from prison wants to re-integrate into a church community.  The play was commissioned by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, and we are excited to be tackling this challenging topic with a cross-country tour, sponsored by MCC that will likely be  coming to a church near you this spring.  Stay tuned!

-Kimberlee Walker

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