of Aotearoa New Zealand
Restorative Justice Facilitator
RJ in New Zealand is firmly sited or positioned within the wider Criminal Justice System. Although the metaphor is not perfect, it could be argued that RJ is the modern day (biblical) Jonah, firmly ensconced in the belly of the whale. From that position, there seem to be three possibilities: the whale can vomit us back up, absorb and then excrete us, or in some magical as yet undetermined way we might have such an effect on the beast that it swims in a different direction.
The whale is much bigger than us, that is, much bigger than the RJ movement. Extending the metaphor it would seem almost inevitable that one of the three options is the most likely – being absorbed and then excreted without trace. What follows is an attempt to draw out this extended metaphor.
When a facilitator is given a new case, the file contains a police ‘summary of facts.’ It all looks very imposing, incontrovertible. Yet it will have been written by a policeperson under some stress, trying to make sense of several conflicting accounts that they have been given. It is best viewed then as a narrative construction by a third party; an attempt to summarise accurately a number of different stories, each story told by someone who has a vested interest in the outcome and who may be tired, confused, drugged, traumatized, just plain angry or frightened. The summary of facts is an attempt to impose order on a chaotic event, and a number of chaotic stories that have flowed from that event. In effect, it is just another story.
Some facilitators place great weight on the summary, and those in training are taught to read it out to the various parties as pretty much the first thing they do. Some facilitators will already be annoyed even severely dismayed by the way I have described the official summary so far, because I have cast considerable doubt on its usefulness and its accuracy.
The way the facilitator responds to this summary is a critical measure of our independence from the criminal justice system. Those facilitators who accept the summary at face value are unwittingly buying right into the wider system, accepting their role as state servants carrying out their allotted task. To return to the metaphor of the whale, this is the first stage of our transformation into whale food, and then excretion without trace.
The summary of facts describes what happens between ‘offender’ and ‘victim.’ The first thing any facilitator with an open mind learns is that these terms are arbitrary: sometimes it depends which person gets to phone the police first, and often the ‘offender’ is as much a victim as the ‘victim.’ Occasionally (in terms of natural justice), the designated labels are completely wrong with the ‘victim’ playing the system with a convincing story that the police buy into. (I have dealt with two sons charged with assaulting their fathers, when it was clearly the other way around, for instance.)
In our conferences, we deal with people to whom bad things have happened, people who have been hurt and harmed. And we deal with other people who have done the hurting and harming. It is the resolution of this hurt and harm that is our objective rather than buying into the completely arbitrary official lexicon of victim and offender. We need to give the whale indigestion. The criminal justice system is about punishment and retribution, we are about healing the harm. The problem is that because of where we are positioned (in the belly of the whale), we have to use the official terms. Can we survive this subtle pressure to conform and in conforming, to disappear?