August 24, 2008

This morning my apartment was suddenly without water, due to a broken water main down the street. This was the second time in two weeks that this happened. Last time, I had just arrived home from a five-night bicycle/camping trip, so I did not think about much except the fact that I desperately wanted to take a shower and could not. This time, I was in a more musing frame of mind and as I walked down the street to see their progress in fixing it I started thinking. It suddenly sank in how very much for granted I take running water. Not only running water, but clean running water. It is simply a given in my life that water will be there when I need or want it, and it was quite disturbing to suddenly be lacking that. Of course, I knew it was only for a few hours, so it did not cause me too much stress.

Being able to simply go to the faucet in my kitchen or bathroom and obtain clean water whenever I am thirsty is a privilege. Being able to use as much water as I want to bathe or do laundry is a privilege. According to the United Nations World Health Organization, there are over 1 billion people in this world without this privilege, without “access to improved water supply.” That number is staggering in and of itself, but it is also important to realize that those 1 billion people are concentrated in certain regions of the world. For example, in Africa, “2 out of 5 people lack an improved water supply.” My small annoyance at my few water-less hours seems trivial when I face the fact that there are people out there for whom finding clean water is a challenge every single day. For whom, in fact, clean water may not even be an option – who must instead suffer health problems from drinking contaminated water.

Water – clean, safe, and plentiful – is a basic necessity in life. Addressing this issue falls under the role of “provider” (see my earlier post on the third side). Conflicts can arise much more easily when people’s basic needs are not met, and providing for those needs is a prerequisite to creating a peaceful society. Every person in this world should be able to take water as much for granted as I do.


Corporal punishment in schools

August 20, 2008

What year is this? I can hardly believe that such a horrifying report as this Human Rights Watch article on corporal punishment in schools can be written in 2008. I knew that there were a few states that still allowed beating children in public schools, but I didn’t realize how prevalent it was: it is legal in 21 states and 13 of those states beat more than 1,000 children a year during the time the study was conducted. This excerpt from the article sums up my thoughts pretty well:

“Every public school needs effective methods of discipline, but beating kids teaches violence and it doesn’t stop bad behavior,” said Alice Farmer, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and author of the report. “Corporal punishment discourages learning, fails to deter future misbehavior and at times even provokes it.”

Corporal punishment is a completely ineffective and cruel way of trying to get children to do what you want. I have a message for all you school administrators out there who use the paddle: children are human beings. That’s right, living human beings who deserve to be treated with respect. Not wild animals to be beaten in to submission. They have thoughts and feelings and reasons for behaving the way they do. Why don’t you try talking to them? Finding out why they did what they did? Maybe reevaluating whether the “rule” they broke makes sense? How about some mediation between the children involved in a fight? How about counseling and therapy for the distressed children from broken homes? A little communication can go a long way.

But there is a deeper problem here – the “trying to get children to do what you want” part of my previous paragraph. The real problem is the authoritarian environment of schools. There are rules, many of which are meaningless to the children, and authority figures who punish when the rules are broken. Children are required to sit in their seats all day when they’d rather be playing outside. They are taught to submit to authority without question. It’s a great system for turning out of bunch of dulled robots who no longer know how to think for themselves. And physically harming children as a way to get them to behave is extremely inhumane and illogical, as well as an excellent way to promote the continuation of a violent society.

Perhaps the most distressing part of the article is the mention of the fact that parents have very little say in the matter:

The report documents several cases in which children were beaten to the point of serious injury. Since educators who beat children have immunity under law from assault proceedings, parents who try to pursue justice for injured children encounter resistance from police, district attorneys, and courts. Parents also face enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in trying to prevent physical punishment of their children. While some school districts permit parents to sign forms opting out of corporal punishment for their children, the forms are often ignored.

If I were a parent in a school district that used corporal punishment, I would be up in arms about it, that’s for sure. It is horrifying that parents are unable (in some districts, at least) to request that their child not be paddled at school when they are required by law to send the child to school in the first place.

One more aspect that needs mentioning: the article cites statistics that black children are paddled at higher rates even though there is no evidence that they break rules at higher rates. So we have a little racism mixed in to. Black men are also in prison at much higher rates than white men. I wonder if by any chance the fact that black children are more frequently beaten in schools is one cause of black men being more frequently in prison…? I do not have any evidence for such a cause/effect, but I sure wouldn’t be surprised to find out there was some.

When will the world wake up and realize that children are sentient humans, not little machines or blank slates?

Thoughts on restorative justice

August 13, 2008

I just read The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr, which provides a nice overview of the philosophy and principles of restorative justice. I had seen this term several places recently but did not know exactly what it meant. After reading this book and exploring some websites on the topic, I now have a better understanding of what restorative justice is. Overall, I think it is an exciting and positive direction for justice to be taking, but there are a few aspects I am slightly uncomfortable with.

First of all, what is restorative justice? Below, I will give an overview of what I see as the key points, but if you wish to read more about it, I recommend this article and Restorative Justice Online.

Given that much has been written about it, it is not easy to summarize in a few words. In his book, Zehr provides one possible working definition:

Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.

One of the key philosophical underpinnings is that crime is a violation of individuals and relationships, rather than an offense against the state. The criminal justice system essentially ignores some of the major “stakeholders” in a crime; that is, the victim and immediate community, focusing entirely on making sure the offender gets what they deserve. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims to address victim and offender needs and to involve the immediate stakeholders in an effort to “put things right.” Zehr lists the key questions that direct criminal justice versus restorative justice:

Criminal justice:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do they deserve?

Restorative justice:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What are their needs?
  • Whose obligations are these?

The lens through which restorative justice looks at crime resonates with me as a much more productive way of handling crime than criminal justice. I am extremely uncomfortable with the criminal justice system. It is built around the concept of punishment, of giving people what they deserve. It makes little effort to help criminals transform into productive members of society, and it makes little effort to help victims heal and feel safe in their community. As Zehr points out, this attitude towards crime arises in part from the fact that criminal justice treats crime as an offense against the impersonal state – the breaking of laws. But in fact, crime is about individuals – one individual harmed another individual in some manner – and for true healing to occur it needs to be viewed through this lens. This is what restorative justice attempts to do.

One of the key aspects of a restorative justice approach is a facilitated encounter between victim and offender. This can take a few different formats, but the general goal is the same: to facilitate dialog between the victim and the offender and possibly community or family members. This allows each individual to express feelings in a safe space, allows the victim to receive answers to questions they may have, provides an opportunity for the offender to empathize with the victim, and provides a place for everyone to come to an agreement on an acceptable outcome. I must admit I am slightly skeptical about how a direct encounter can be healthy and helpful, particularly in a case where violence was involved. However, I read some case studies linked from the Restorative Justice Online website and it seems that it can indeed be a powerful and positive experience for both victim and offender. It does make sense to me, psychologically speaking, that it can be helpful to the victim’s healing process to be able to directly ask questions of the offender, if they can do so while feeling safe, and that it can help the offender understand the effect of their crime.

One thing I especially like about restorative justice is that it emphasizes respect for everyone, including the offender. The goal is not to stigmatize or antagonize the offender, but to help everyone heal. One of the many problems I see in the criminal justice system is that it uses an us vs. them model, placing the offender on the defensive. This is naturally going to make the offender angry towards the state and community, and does not encourager him or her to explore or address the causes of his/her behavior. In a restorative justice approach, the offender is encouraged to work on self-transformation and healing. This approach recognizes that offenders are human also, and may also have been hurt in the past.

The idea of dialog, or a “circle,” to discuss and resolve the offense makes a lot of sense to me, perhaps because I was raised in a family that held family meetings. When a conflict arose in our family, we discussed it civilly in a meeting, each having the opportunity to share their side of the story, and then coming to a resolution that everyone was happy with. The leap from the relatively trivial conflicts in my family to a situation where a murder has occurred is a little difficult for me to make, however. I like the concept that everyone is involved in addressing, understanding, and resolving the harmful behavior, but it is hard for me to understand exactly how it works and how it is effective for physically harmful behavior without seeing it in action.

One aspect of restorative justice that I am slightly uncomfortable with is the use of the phrase “obligations.” I am not sure why it bothers me; when Zehr breaks it down into the specific ways in which obligations come in to play, it makes sense. The offender has an obligation to make some sort of reparation towards their victim, and the community has an obligation to help both the victim and the offender to heal, and to work on preventing similar crimes in the future. Actually, I think it is the first part that bothers me, the obligation of the offender towards their victim. I don’t like the term because it sounds too close to requiring the offender to do something to “pay” for the crime, that is, to close to punishment. I don’t think this is the intention with the use of the word, but that is the association it evokes for me.

I also find that there is not enough of a focus on offender rehabilitation in restorative justice as I understand it. Zehr mentions several times the importance of addressing the needs of the offender, including the cause of the crime and what they need to not repeat the offense, but each time he mentions it, it sounds like an afterthought. The primary focus of restorative justice seems to be the needs of the victim. I agree that this is important, but I think the needs of the offender are equally important for repairing the break in relationships and for creating a safe community. I do not think that someone who has committed a crime can truly empathize and be able to re-integrate into the community until they receive rehabilitive help. People who commit crimes have most likely been harmed in some way in the past, and they need to heal from that past harm before they will be able to become fully productive members of society. Thus, I think that helping the offender heal is absolutely crucial in an effective justice system, and I do not feel that restorative justice focuses quite enough on that, at least as layed out by Zehr. However, it may be that in practice, it often does address the offender needs, or is completed by a program directed at that.

Restorative justice as it is currently used in practice, at least in this country, is often a complement to a traditional criminal justice process, rather than a substitute. I certainly think this is a step in the right direction, but I have radical ideals. I would do away with the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison system, in its entirety. I believe that the only reason to lock someone up is as a restraint of someone who is violent. However, we should be giving that person rehabilitation at the same time, to help them become less violent and able to reenter society. I believe that punishment is completely counter-productive. It will only serve to antagonize the offender and do them further psychological harm. Criminals need to be seen as troubled human beings who need help, and as a possible symptom of a larger societal problem (e.g. poverty), rather than as monsters to be put in their place. I believe that restorative justice is definitely one part of what is needed to implement this approach to crime.

Police acquitted for murdering black woman

August 11, 2008

This is so awful, I don’t know what to say. Eight months ago police raided a house looking for a drug dealer, entering with drawn guns, and shot and killed an innocent black woman holding her baby, in the presence of her other children. Today, the police officer was acquitted by an all-white jury. This is so wrong, so totally backwards from the way things would be in a just and peaceful world. For one thing, it is clearly racist – as Cara says in the post I linked above:

Isn’t it funny really fucked up how white police officers seem to think that their lives are in danger when they’re not so much more often when it’s a black person that’s posing the not actual threat? And how white juries eat it right up?

To make things worse, the defense attorney said the officer was “doing his duty.” His duty? Last time I checked, a police officer’s duty is to protect the citizens, not blindly shoot them because they think they might be armed (if he even really thought that). As I said before, in my post on a similar acquittal, it is a sad world where police are so quick to be violent.

Beyond the awful jury decision, there is the fact that the six children saw the officer shoot and kill their mother. Those poor children, what an awful trauma to experience. If they do not receive the necessary support to heal from the trauma, I fear that some of them may turn to violence as they grow older. And thus the cycle of violence would continue.

I can’t say anymore. I am still in a daze that such things happen (I fear more often that I would like to know) in the world I live in.

Peacebuilding books

August 3, 2008

Friday evening I was browsing at a bookstore and two books on peacebuilding jumped out at me. One is The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, by William Ury, which is the book that the website I wrote about in my last post, thirdside.org, is based on. It looks like it goes in to much greater depth than the articles available on the website, so I am looking forward to reading it.

The other book that caught my eye is The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr. I wasn’t familiar with the term “restorative justice” until relatively recently, and I’m still not sure I understand exactly what it is. I have my own opinions on our current system of “justice,” so I am curious to learn more about the approach of restorative justice.