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Restorative Justice: A (Surprising) Example of Collaboration in the Justice System

Posted By Troy Sanders, Thursday, March 31, 2011
Updated: Friday, June 10, 2011

The idea of working collaboratively has obvious merits in the healthcare field; after all, the purpose of all healthcare providers is to improve the outcome of their patients. Patients or consumers should be seen as natural partners in their own care, especially in the realm of mental wellness as the efficacy of many treatments can depend entirely on what a consumer communicates to their friends, family and healthcare providers. Full and honest communication is essential in this context, as difficult as that can be at times.

Where the idea of collaboration tests our Western notions is the field of law. Our justice system (and this applies both in Canada and the United States) is predicated on two uniquely Western (i.e. owing their origin to the Greco-Roman concept of dualism) principles: 1. our rights system is centred on the individual and 2. our system is constructed in an adversarial fashion. In this light, medicine and law could scarcely be farther apart in their philosophical orientation.

However, when we examine judicial practices of other societies and traditions, we find another lens through which to aid our search for justice. These principles state the community, not the individual, is the centre of the social and legal structures. It then follows, if a community is composed of many people, that each person is not an insular individual but one of many community members. With this framework, one can use the medical analogy of a community being "the body” while the community members are the disparate parts of the body – organs, limbs, skeleton, neurological network, etc.

This organic understanding of community and people immediately challenges our current legal regime. The heart does not exist separate from the lungs, nor brain, nor mouth from the stomach. All are connected and work together, not in competition. These are the central themes of Restorative Justice (or RJ). Participants work together, communicating, each sharing their concerns and wisdom for the benefit of the larger whole. RJ does not say "A law is broken, thus comes punishment”. RJ states "someone has harmed another and by extension, the community”. A conversation then develops among the person(s) who have made a poor choice, those who have been harmed and other members of the community. It is essential to note the action (or choice) and not the individual is judged.

With honesty and compassion, the group examines what went wrong (regarding the incident itself but also within the person’s life) and what led to their poor choice. The person learns who has been harmed, how they have been impacted and through this process, learn how their actions affect others. The process reinforces the sense of community as well as allowing the person a chance at sober second thought and reflect on their mistakes. The talk then leads to ways the person can heal the harm. Again, this is not punitive. Sometimes, when a wrongdoer learns how they have hurt others, they proactively ask what they can do to make things right. Where one system would have crafted adversaries, RJ can, at its best, forge new alliances and strengthen everyone impacted in the end. RJ sees conflict not as something to eradicate, suppress or "deal with”, rather, it is a catalyst for personal growth.

We thus have a working model for collaboration in two critical fields in our society. This is an excellent start, but not without radical challenges. In a society structured around a competitive, "me first” mentality, "do your best” is often confused with "be the best”, while the ends too often justify the means (we will forgive winners for minor mistakes sooner than noble losers who failed to succeed). Frankly, in a society eager to infuse Sun Tzu’s The Art of War into new areas of public life, it is a wonder how any seeds of collaboration could grow in this hostile field of abject narcissism. It has taken far too long for science to see nature and nurture as anything but an either/or problem, an excellent example of the tendency to default to such dualistic thinking.

Any attempt in our society at working collaboratively runs against the grain. This is unfortunate but true. Yet this must always be kept in mind, especially by those of us who have fully embraced collaborative practices. It can be easy to give up when fighting layers of bureaucracy rooted in competitive assumptions. Privacy laws assume information will be used for the gain of one and at the expense of another. Never would we assume information would be shared among partners working collectively with one in need. Instead of building bridges to communication, we erect impenetrable silos as "protection”. We fail to see the void between silos as gaps too many fall into, never to recover.

Yet as difficult as it is to work together, there are thousands of years of wisdom which encourages us to do so. Many elements of RJ (and theories of collaborative practice in general) find roots in indigenous customs millennia old. These teaching models grew from resilient cultures who saw communities as central figures, yet valued each community member for the contributions they add to the whole. Working with one another came much easier to them – forging not only an enlightened environmental awareness, but also a social awareness in much the same way. We spend so much time proving the value of collaboration not because its value is questionable, but because we have forgotten we live in a social ecosystem, connected to everyone and everything else. When our first reaction is focused on the collective instead of the individual, everything will change.

When we ask "how can I help the community I am a part of” (whatever community means at that moment) instead of "what’s in it for me” our treasury of collective wisdom will explode exponentially and our ability to help one another will grow in equal measure.

Troy Sanders is a mental health consumer working with ADD, Depression and Social Anxiety. He holds both a B.A. and a L.L.B., degree; although he chooses not to practice law. He recently discovered a deep interest for Restorative Justice; a collaborative parallel to mainstream judicial processes and he has been an RJ practitioner for close to 5 years now. Writing is a passion of his.

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