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A restorative justice approach for hotspots

By Theodore Lewis

It is time for us to change the question on crime from how do we apprehend the criminals? to how do we restore community tranquillity so that ordinary people could get back have basic existences? In other words, let's focus on the other side of the crime coin so that good, ordinary people can look out from their galleries at night, or the senior citizen can walk to an early-morning mass if she is that way inclined, and the Fifth Former who is studying for his exams does not have his work interrupted by the sound of gunshots.

Crime is a messy problem because a critical part of the logic of the gangsters is to lay claim to territory. In between the murders, you have suffocation of whole communities. Taxis can traverse the roads in crime-ridden areas only if the drivers are known and regular, and often if they must pay a "tax". Neighbours who are witness to wrongdoing cannot talk, for fear of reprisal.

Strangers who venture across geographic lines can end up dead for trespassing. Service workers with responsibility for water and electricity connections must take their lives in their hands to venture into crime-ridden areas to perform needed work. People from crime-ridden areas who buy furniture or appliances and need transport service of any kind find that it is difficult to get such service, drivers being reluctant to enter such areas. This strangulation of communities is what we should strive to undo. I am suggesting that as a first serious step in this direction we resort to a restorative justice approach.

Restorative justice as a way to resolve messy community-wide problems of violence came to our notice dramatically at the end of apartheid, when Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu decided the way forward for a post-apartheid South Africa was Truth and Reconciliation, to head off potential retributive justice.

The solution to the decades of bloodshed occasioned by state-sanctioned police and army killings of black citizens, and by the deadly strikes of black freedom fighters that led to the deaths of whites was to bring all parties to a common forum where they would accept guilt for their actions and ask for forgiveness from those directly affected as a result of the crime.

This approach saved South Africa from a bloodbath based upon pent-up resentments brought on by racial oppression under white rule. Moreover, it laid the groundwork for the decades of remarkable peace that has attended the shift to black majority rule there, a period within which there has been a return to constitutionally sanctioned law.

We saw restorative justice at work again after the bloody genocide in Rwanda, when Hutus and Tutsis who lived side by side murdered each other in the cause of tribal and ethnic differences. To restore equanimity to murder-ridden communities where the survivors of the onslaught, victims as well as perpetrators, could be found in virtually every household living side by side, Truth and Reconciliation was employed again—the poignancy of the approach to be seen in a video shown on television where a man admits to his neighbour, in the presence of other members of the community and authorities, he had killed her husband during the onslaught and was asking her for forgiveness. The woman says she was willing to forgive him, he expressing willingness to donate his time and efforts in helping her to cope economically with her family loss.

Restorative justice requires that those families who have suffered loss due to crime committed by fellow community members get the opportunity to face perpetrators, who must come forward willingly before them, under conditions of amnesty, expressing guilt and remorse, and willingness to help the family overcome deficits occasioned by their loss. The state oversees the coming-together of parties and puts a binding seal on the results of deliberations.

One author has set forth that restorative justice is based on five Rs, namely: facing reality that one has committed a grievous offence against a fellow community member; accepting responsibility, and willingness to make a personal response; repenting for the consequences of one's actions; knowing reconciliation by willingly acknowledging wrongfulness; making restitution by showing willingness to apologise and take full responsibility for the crime committed against the loved ones of a fellow citizen.

It is clear the geography of crime in some communities is such that the work of the police amounts to striving to go up a down escalator. Almost all crimes go unsolved in these areas. Community members know who the perpetrators are, but they choose to remain silent out of fear. People caught in the middle of these crime zones must forever keep their heads down, as they remain trapped in the cross-fire, huddled behind burglar-proofing as they watch the criminals parade often in broad daylight with impunity, their guns openly on display. Even if there are no bodies to be counted over a particular time period in these communities, it does not mean innocent, law-abiding citizens there can live the kind of existence they deserve.

There is need for a reset in these communities. I think we should seriously consider a restorative justice approach as suggested here and in doing such the state consult externally with Bishop Desmond Tutu and with the United Nations, which had some hand in the restoration of calm in Rwanda; and internally with the faith leaders, the legal profession and the relevant ministries associated with crime prevention.

The aim is not to turn known criminals free. It is to bring freedom to law-abiding citizens who are now trapped. The police have to come out of this with a deeper understanding of how the system of crime works. Guns have to be turned over and their sources made known. Sensitive information about stakeholders in crime have to be unearthed. The price of amnesty must be information that can be used as the basis to ensure deep roots of crime are gotten to, so they do not spring up again. This cannot be done with a plan for community life after the period of amnesty, central to which has to be community policing with teeth.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota, USA.

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