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Restoring Justice

by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book BEST FOR ALL: How We Can Save the World.
For information on ordering, please click here.

Although the United States has only 4.5 percent of the world's population, one-fourth of all those imprisoned on Earth are in the US, more than two million people. The vast majority are there because of the "war on drugs," and more than half are people of color. An additional 4,700,000 people are on probation or parole in the US. More than eleven million people are arrested in the US each year, and the US spends seven times as much as most European democracies on crime. The rate of homicides with guns in the United States is about twenty times that of England or France. Yet 88% of US crimes are nonviolent, and only three percent result in injuries. In 1980 the state of California spent 3% of its budget on prisons and 18% on higher education; but by 1994 the prisons budget had passed the higher education budget. Because of the "three-strikes law," California spending on prisons has greatly increased since then. From 1980 to 2000 the US per capita spending on prisons increased 189%, and in Texas the increase was 401%. This shameful situation is a gross waste of human and financial resources.

Most ancient and indigenous cultures used a community system of justice that has been called restorative. In order to prevent revenge and on-going feuds, offenders had to compensate their victims in some way. Although some of these also used barbaric punishments such as death or mutilation, these were usually only imposed for the most serious offenses. During the rise of empires and the powerful nation states under monarchical power, the state took over the community function and made criminals pay it fines, ignoring the victims. In the late 18th century prisons began to be used more extensively for punishment. The idea of using them as institutions of corrections developed, and they were renamed penitentiaries with the hope that criminals would repent and become rehabilitated. This philosophy reached its peak during the liberal era of the 1960s and 1970s; but since then a conservative trend has brought back retribution, and politicians have exploited widespread fears of having criminals "back on the streets," resulting in longer sentences and large increases in prison populations. At the same time a victims' rights movement has sprung up, and now all fifty states in the US allow victims to testify at sentencing hearings.

A few experiments have been successful at applying a modern approach to restorative justice that balances socially beneficial forms of retribution such as restitution, fines, and community service with practical methods of rehabilitation. These programs have been found to be effective, especially with younger offenders.

Here is a description of how restorative justice can work. If the offender admits guilt, then obviously no trial is needed. If a person is convicted in a trial, then the sentencing phase can still use the methods of restorative justice. Offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their crimes by participating in a conference with the victims. If the victim refuses to participate in the conference, then a community person may represent that type of victim. Also included are a support person chosen by the offender who may be a relative, a friend, an attorney, a spiritual advisor, or other counselor. The victim may also have a support person, and the community may be represented by a probation officer and a relevant social worker or counselor. A facilitator or mediator directs the conference. During the conference the offender explains what he or she did and why. Then the victim or victims tell their story. The offender is encouraged to take responsibility for the harmful consequences by apologizing and making restitution to the victim. In a negotiated process the offender, the victim, and the others work out a plan that might include compensating the victim, a fine, community service, and a program for the offender such as drug-treatment, counseling, education, and job training. Ideally consensus is achieved; but if not, a majority vote may settle issues. If it is the first offense for which the person has been caught, a successful mediation may result in no formal criminal record once all the conditions agreed upon have been fulfilled.

Preliminary studies have shown that restorative conferences help the victims to recover psychologically by understanding the offender better and experiencing closure on the incident as well as by gaining compensation for the wrong suffered. The offenders may realize the consequences of their crimes by seeing how they have affected the victims. By being given the opportunity to take responsibility and make reparations, the offender is much more likely to be reintegrated into society. Recidivism has been shown to be lower for those who go through restorative justice conferences. In some areas they are called circles or boards. Thus in restorative justice the offender, victim, and community are much more likely to be healed and restored.

Punishment that is justified only as a deterrent tends to make the people suffering it worse. They may become angry at the society that is punishing them and while in prison may learn more criminal behavior and attitudes from fellow inmates. Society loses by paying high costs for incarceration. Victims that neither receive restitution nor reconciliation continue to suffer from the consequences of the crimes. Restorative justice could be applied to many more cases and could eventually transform the criminal justice system so that victims get more justice, offenders find the reconciliation and treatment they need, and the huge expenses of the penal system could be greatly reduced.

The United States experimented with the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and found that it increased violent crime but did not solve drinking problems. Because alcohol was the drug of choice for a large number of people, that experiment was abandoned in 1933. However, other drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, psychedelics, and narcotics have continued to be illegal. Some narcotics, stimulants, and depressants are allowed only with a prescription by a physician. Many people believe that the abuse of these drugs could be treated better as a health problem rather than as a criminal issue. Similarly, other "victimless" crimes such as gambling and prostitution could be handled better if they were not illegal so that government could regulate and tax them appropriately. They are called "victimless" because they may not hurt other people but only oneself. Therefore libertarians argue that the government should not interfere with people who are not harming others. By making drugs legal for adults with prescriptions the huge resources of law enforcement and the penal system used for catching and incarcerating those who use such drugs could be saved and redirected into more productive activities such as treatment programs that help people break these addictions. Millions of people would not have to waste their time and society's wealth locked up in prisons. People can still believe certain behaviors are immoral without necessarily making those actions illegal. These problems are often solved better by using education and counseling rather than law enforcement and punishment.

Jails would still be used for those temporarily under arrest and awaiting bail, trial, or restorative conferences, and prisons primarily would only be necessary for the most violent and hardened repeat offenders. Law enforcement would be able to spend more time finding those committing other crimes such as fraud, identity theft, and other nefarious activities that are harming other people. Restorative justice would help those who think they can get away with stealing by teaching them that they will have to pay back their victims and society by working honestly to make amends. With fewer people in prisons more efforts could be made for rehabilitation by education, counseling, and job training.

Ironically the most deadly drugs in our society are legal and do not require any prescription at all. The biggest killer by far is the nicotine that is smoked in cigarettes. This is changing in educated countries, and people realizing the dangers of second-hand smoke are passing laws against smoking in places where other people breathe. Alcohol is still a much abused drug and is most lethal when it affects those operating motor vehicles. Law enforcement for the latter and education are also ameliorating this problem. The drug that is most widely used is caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, and colas. This drug is addictive, and more than eighty percent of the American people have the caffeine habit. Many cannot wake up properly in the morning until they have had coffee. Others are hooked on soft drinks that are combined with so much sugar that drinking them is contributing greatly to the recent epidemic in obesity. Most Americans are overweight, and obesity has passed up smoking as the leading cause of death that is preventable. The selling of colas has even been allowed in schools, where children can develop the bad habit.

I believe we have the right through our government to regulate the sale of substances that cause harmful effects to health, especially since the society and its government have to pay for health care. Thus I suggest that we can tax these products with the estimated amount that would pay for the likely health costs they inflict. This provides some deterrent to such bad habits without prohibiting them altogether and making them into a criminal problem. Instead of threatening to make people's lives worse by punishing them, society can regulate these problems more effectively by having our democratic government apply financial disincentives that discourage self-destructive and abusive habits. These taxes than can be put to work in programs of prevention and health care that make people better.

Copyright © 2005 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book BEST FOR ALL: How We Can Save the World.
For information on ordering, please click here.

Global Emergency
Alleviating Poverty
Disarming Weapons of War
Creating Global Democracy
Reforming the US Constitution
Restoring Justice
Sustainable Economics
Freeing Communication
Spiritual Awakening
Nonviolent Strategies
Global Disarmament Treaty (first draft by Beck)
Constitution of the Federal Earth Democracy (first draft by Beck)
Constitution of the United States Revised (first draft by Beck)

BECK index