Restorative justice for children and young offenders

Maori leaders pointed out that the Western system of justice was a foreign imposition. In their cultural tradition, judges did not mete out punishment. Instead, the whole community was involved in the process, and the intended outcome was repair. Instead of focusing on blame, they wanted to know “why,” because they argued that finding the cause of crime is part of resolving it. Instead of punishment (“Let shame be the punishment” is a Maori proverb), they were concerned with healing and problem-solving. The Maori also pointed out that the Western system, which undermined the family and disproportionately incarcerated Maori youth, emerged from a larger pattern of institutional racism. They argued persuasively that cultural identity is based on three primary institutional pillars—law, religion, and education—and when any of these undermines or ignores the values and traditions of the indigenous people, a system of racism is operating.

In 1989 the legislature passed a landmark Act of Parliament. The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act totally revamped the focus and process of juvenile justice in New Zealand. Although it did not use this terminology until later, the New Zealand legal system became the first in the world to institutionalize a form of restorative justice. Family Group Conferences became the hub of New Zealand’s entire juvenile justice system. In New Zealand today, an FGC, not a courtroom, is intended to be the normal site for making such decisions.

– Allan McRae and Howard Zehr, Righting Wrongs The Maori Way: Restorative Justice, Yes Magazine, 8 July 2011

Similarly, and in a few articles written here, I mentioned about the need to find the Filipino way of doing urban planning and design. I can’t remember where I heard this but an art professor advised his students to unlearn what they have formally learned about art in order to create their own brand of art. Think Picasso. Monet. One knows that a particular piece is by Monet or Picasso. Same with urban planning and design: what is a Filipino city? what is that city which does not drown the Filipino but rather is a place where all good things Filipino thrive? what are the distinct features of this city? Presently, Philippine cities are Westernized or going toward that – physically and culturally – despite the fact that less than 1% of residents have actually lived or worked in countries in the North; that the overwhelming majority are traditionally Filipino. For this majority, they try to cope up and make sense out of how their towns and spaces are being built. Their exterior may be calm or uncaring but their internal struggle is like a ripping apart. Ripped this way and that, they don’t know anymore who they are, their roots, their beliefs. These lie in shreds at their feet. And they don’t know whether to pick them up and restore them, or totally discard them.

Filipino older children and young people are most affected. They are according to child development theorists at that development phase wherein they are still forming in every way. They are according to Erikson yet to form their identities. But they cope, by acting out what they think and believe are right or at least expected. Their so-called strange actions mirror the strangeness of their society. Alice’s Wonderland has never been more relevant than here, now. In trying to please the Queen, whoever or whatever ‘she’ is, many end up hurting others but most especially themselves. For a child or young person to have to live out a large part of his or her life in prison is most sad. Tragic. And the fact that these cases are growing should be a wake up call to Filipino adults.

Many Filipino youth lack positive adult involvement in their lives. They yearn for it, is a fitting description. A recent research involving poor urban youth brought home this fact once again. The study revealed that money could provide the children access to schools but it cannot keep them there. Financial capacity therefore was not a significant factor for why these youth dropped out (they could always find the money, they’d forage if they have to). Rather, the significant factor was parental or adult care and guidance. Their parents had not been good mothers and fathers. This does something – trauma is a bland word – to the psycho-social wiring of the young. It’s like bringing them into the world and then depriving them of food and water and closeting them in the dark. To survive, emotionally, they turned to their friends who became a sort of parents to them but for all the bad reasons. They dropped out eventually because they heeded the urging of their friends or quasi-parents: “life is so much better outside the school”. They learned, later on, after finding their way back somehow, but not entirely without permanent scars and consequences, that this was not at all helpful advice. Yet, when we asked them about what they’d like to do most of all they said they want to be able to help their parents, provide them better lives. Every time they tell us this, I felt a catch in my throat and I had to look down, pretended to review my notes but really I wanted to cry. I was also stupefied that their priority was not themselves but their parents (who they saw as needing help). Their parents, good or bad, are the world to them. They will steal and beg for them (which is why we have street children). That is children and young people for you.

The judge meting out justice to children who have committed crimes (including bullying) cannot truly solely blame the child. Because it really is a family affair. Think Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of child development.

With this in view,

The restorative process of involving all parties – often in face-to-face meetings – is a powerful way of addressing not only the material and physical injuries caused by crime, but the social, psychological and relational injuries as well.

In the Philippines, forms of restorative justice are practiced across the regions. As with the Maoris, these are something we’ve inherited from forebears. It helps de-clog the courts especially from cases that can be acted upon at the level of the barangay. It is all the more urgent then that local officials tasked with the responsibility of leading the process are provided with updated and continuous knowledge of their task. I’ve come across a few instances when barangay officials violated basic rules of engagement because of ignorance. The process also calls for partnership. The Church (Catholic or not) has strong presence in the barangays as well as in shaping the lives of the locals. Barangay officials could work with them. I’ve seen a few cases where officials insisted to bring in the Catholic religious despite the fact that the offender and victim are non-Catholics. Officials should not impose their own religion or Church values but rather exercise sensitivity relative to what a particular case calls for. Quality of the restorative process is therefore equally important. In fact, it is what would make it effective.


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