I never seem to stop being baffled by aspects of our society. But more than anything else, I’ve been baffled by the illogic of our criminal justice system since I was able to think for myself. Last night I co-facilitated a Restorative Justice conference that brought it home to me once more how important a role apology has in the process of repairing the harm caused to another.
In so many cases the victim, the most important person within the context of a committed crime, can be hugely helped by the “simple” act of a genuine apology. Isn’t that precisely what we are taught to do as children when we have done something bad? And yet as we grow up and do more seriously bad things, the role of apology is largely replaced by punishment, a revenge of sort that responds to and feeds a victims’s natural and justified anger but contributes little to the easing of their pain. We’ve seen examples of apology countless times in politics: Ireland’s decades of pain-filled longing for an apology from the British government for Bloody Sunday in contrast to the hugely powerful yet simple gesture in Germany in 1970 when Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt at the memorial to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. No words were needed and it was accepted by the world as a public acknowledgment of wrong – no excuses, no justifications, just a silent and humble act of apology.
So why, why aren’t we integrating the format that offers the perfect forum for an apology to take place, into our over-burdened, hugely expensive and largely ineffectual prison system? Why isn’t Restorative Justice practiced at every opportunity? I know you cannot force anyone to make or accept an apology, but what I witness in the RJ process is a softening of all concerned. An awakening to and deeper understanding of both sides of the story; the possibility to feel empathy, compassion, even forgiveness towards each other; the chance to move forward in a new and different way. These are true human qualities, the absence of which lies behind so many crimes.