Sunday, 29 April 2007

Give restorative justice a chance

I have heard so many people say that the youths of today are getting out of control. They cannot be made to behave and they ruin the lives of others, old and young. The ‘tough’ proponents argue that the only solution is to target those who are threatening others with much more stringent measures. Punish them, and possibly their parents too if they are to be found, with eviction from public housing, cuts to their benefits, and prison sentences. Hit them hard until they submit.

The ‘soft’ advocates, on the other hand, maintain that more support should be given to parents and children to help them cope with living in a society with relentlessly growing income inequalities. More supervised time for out of school hour activities, more play facilities, more leisure events which are affordable without being branded as second class, and generally better response to the unmet needs of the marginalized.

But between the tiny minority of young people who really require the most punitive treatment to prevent them from harming others, and the general needs of young people who would otherwise be made to feel neglected and insignificant, there is a substantial group of youngsters who deal with their own deficiencies and low self-esteem by being unpleasant to others. There is no evidence whatsoever that either the tough or soft approach is necessary or sufficient in changing their behaviour.

The only evidence that anything would make a real difference is that gathered by the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales on the impact of restorative justice in schools. Schools in many different areas were introduced to the practice of restorative justice where teachers, and in some cases pupils, were trained as facilitators to bring perpetrators of undesirable behaviour and their victims together to talk through the problems. Crucially the process was to guide the perpetrators to see the hurt they have caused, make a sincere apology, and offer to behave differently. At the same time, it would give the victims an opportunity to have their say, and secure for themselves the assurance they needed.

Apart from the most serious, though thankfully few, cases of violent behaviour, all forms of insulting, bullying, teasing, aggravating behaviour were picked up by the restorative justice approach, and in 93% of the cases across the participating schools a resolution was reached with an agreement signed up to by the perpetrator. But are these agreements worth the paper they were written on? Does anyone take them seriously, you ask. Well, 96% of the agreements were honoured. No wonder, pupils and teachers alike were delighted with the improvement to their schools and confident that they would be sustained. In some schools, the pupils who had trained and practised as facilitators asked their head teachers if they could offer their support to other schools as the problem of abusive and bullying had virtually vanished from their own schools.

So why shouldn’t we have restorative justice practices in every school? Apparently some of those who favour the tough approach believe that they absolved the perpetrators of blame for their bad behaviour and should therefore be rejected as a legitimate way to deal with wrongdoing. But the essence of restorative justice is the recognition of blame and the embrace of personal responsibility to rectify past wrong. Let’s cast dogma aside and give restorative justice a chance.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Weapons of mass confusion

What is it about America and weapons? Why does this country stockpile more weapons of mass destruction than anyone else and yet is permanently poised to strike at any country thinking of acquiring a few of their own? The biggest threat to its own citizens in terms of being injured or killed by gunfire comes not from abroad but their fellow Americans. And what is the American response when the umpteenth tragedy strikes with more of their own slain by some gun-obsessed shooter? That it is a fundamental right of the American people to bear arms.

But why should this peculiar right be so important in America, when it is utterly alien in every other civilized country in the world? It may have something to do with the culture of distrust that goes right back to the origins of the USA. People who did not want to live under various European regimes migrated to America, and when the British government tried to retain control over their affairs, they took up arms and declared themselves independent. But once their own system of government was put in place, the American people were not prepared to surrender their weapons. Even with one of the most elaborate checks and balance form of governance, individuals wanted to have ready access to their own guns should they fell out with those they put in temporary charge of their collective affairs.

To this day, the deal remains that whoever runs the American government has to acknowledge that its own citizens rightly cannot trust it with sole possession of weapons. It is odd then that it should expect the rest of the world to trust it with having the most powerful weapons imaginable. Is it because feeling impotent in relation to its own arms-loving citizens, it wants to exert control over people outside its borders? Or is it trying to translate the historical belief of American people that only they can be trusted with weapons into a global policy of preventing non-Americans from having powerful weapons of their own?

Yet, just when one thinks any of this might make sense after all, we are reminded of the fact that the world’s leading exporter of arms is none other than the United States. Not only do American weapon makers dominate the international market for destructive instruments, their government faithfully supports them by cultivating new buyers in its tireless sales pitch to foreign states. So whatever their rhetoric may be about weapon proliferation posing too great a risk to peace and security to be tolerated, they in practice do more than everyone else combined in arming the world.

Logic of course cannot by itself make sense of the actions of people who are seriously disorientated. A symptom of persistent distrust is the spread of paranoia eroding the capacity to work with others collectively to find sensible solutions. Why sit down with others to seek to reach an agreement on a way forward when one can shoot down any opposition (real or perceived). The infantile American colonies of the 1770s, feeling in turn neglected and repressed by the father figure of a deranged monarch, grew up into a 21st century superpower who celebrates the freedom to wield weapons everywhere so long as the deadliest weapons of all stay in their own hands.

To be fair, a significant number of people in America – derided as liberal or progressive – have over recent decades developed a much more mature outlook which recognises that juvenile macho obsession with weapons has to be displaced by proper controls nationally and internationally, and pressed for reining in arms sales at every level. But until they become the majority, America and the rest of the world can expect many more innocent people to pay the price of this armed mayhem.