Monday, 20 February 2012

Little bits of success

I had the pleasure of attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Granville restorative justice centre several days ago.  This centre is one of 4 centres that are the result of more than 2 years of work by the Ministry of Justice here in Jamaica, part of a pilot project working in 4 communities around Jamaica.  It is one way to think about crime differently, as the traditional responses of more police and harsher sentences are not having the right kind of impact fast enough.

Restorative justice, in case you are interested, is “a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense. It is a different way of thinking about conflict. Restorative Justice focuses on holding the offender accountable in a more meaningful way. It repairs the harm caused by the offense, helps to reintegrate the offender into the community and helps to achieve a sense of healing for both the victim and the community.” (from the Restorative Justice brochure, produced by the Jamaican Ministry of Justice).

In Jamaica, they’ve been working on officially integrating restorative justice options on all levels of the justice system – the idea being that those active in the community will be given tools to help identify optimal cases for the restorative justice process and can make direct referrals. In Jamaica, the concept of restorative justice makes particular sense because of the retaliatory nature of the violence – involving the whole community is one way to end a cycle of violence that ultimately has effects far beyond the immediate victims.

Restorative Justice plan for Jamaica

I was invited to attend the event by Audrey Barrett, a Canadian from Cape Breton, who has spend the last two years here in Jamaica as a consultant to the ministry on restorative justice.   When I spoke to Audrey after the event and asked how she was, she took a deep breath in and said something like “still holding on.” It had been a long week of grand openings and events in various places, with the usual upsets of dignitaries cancelling appearances at the last moment, (as they are wont to do anywhere in the world) technical difficulties and just general lack of sleep. The week should have been celebratory, the culmination of 2 long years of hard work, but instead it was a fuss of ceremony, with the pettiness of those who felt slighted given their status and those who felt the project was just a waste of money seeming to speak out louder than everyone else.  

The two of us were sitting down after the ceremony, discussing the event and not able to go anywhere since it was pouring down buckets of rain.  We were joined by a couple of members of the Granville community. They started to tell Audrey about how they had used the restorative justice process to deal with an incident in the community a few weeks earlier. 

From what I can tell, the story goes something like this: a shooting had occurred in the community recently and the rumours were that the gunmen had taken cover in a stand of banana trees. So in an effort to promote community safety, some community members decided to go in and cut down the banana trees, preventing anyone else from hiding there.  

However, the banana trees were a primary source of income for 5 or 6 families leaving nearby, who were understandably quite upset by this destruction of their livelihood. I’m not exactly sure how it started, but some members of the community quickly realised that this might be a good time for a community meeting involving some members from both “sides” and an impromptu meeting was held.  Following that early meeting, some people in the community contacted Audrey about the incident, and she walked them through some of the restorative justice processes and things to keep in mind while conducting a more formal session.

A restorative justice “conference” was held, or at least something similar adapted to the circumstances.  The community members who were telling us about it seemed quite upbeat about how it had unfolded. They had gotten more feedback and open conversation from people than they had expected, and although people didn’t easily answer, “How did that make you feel?” questions, eventually the conversation uncovered people’s responses to the incident and all sides seemed to have had a chance to present their stories.

And, as important as having voices heard, the meeting culminated with some actions for moving forward. Members of the community would help the families replant the area where the destruction had occurred, and in the meeting a suggestion was made to plant another crop that would generate income for the families, without growing to the height of the banana trees and providing shelter for criminals.

Lesson learned: official events are important for public recognition and other reasons, but never get confused about what really matters.  In this case, community members recognized the potential of the restorative justice process and have started to use it on their own, with or without the official opening ceremonies. Indicators of success come in all shapes and sizes, with the important ones being the hardest to find sometimes!

Granville - a lush, green community back in the hills.

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