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Editor. Exorcising the Ghosts

Relates the story of a graduate student who used restorative justice conferencing to deal with his intense anger at five youths who engaged him in a fight after drinking.

Sam had an uneasy feeling as he walked past the group of youths drinking on a busy city street.  


But it wasn't until he turned a corner into a side street and the bottle flew past his head that he knew he was in danger.  


Running wasn't an option because of a torn ligament in his leg.  


So the graduate student, with four years martial arts training under his belt, turned and confronted the aggressors.


The fight -- when it came -- was five against one.  


It took some time -- and failing his exams -- for Sam to realise just how deep the effect had been on him.  


But taking part in the court-referred restorative justice process after his exams were completed was the turning point in his recovery.  


Sam (not his real name) agreed to take part in the process because the offenders were young and faced prison sentences.  


"In the beginning I was really against it. I didn't see any possible benefit for me. But I did want my money back for my glasses that were smashed, and one of them had taken my watch. Then I was told that they might be sent to prison for three years. Three years in jail can really change a person and I didn't want to make them into something even worse. The stories you hear about jails are a bit scary. When I heard that some of their mothers wanted to talk to me as well, I said 'fine, we'll do it.' I knew then they weren't just hoodlums, but had supportive parents. That gave me some hope."


Sam decided to take part in restorative justice conferences with each offender separately -- a decision he is now adamant is the way to go.  


"My view is if you are going to do something, do it properly. Each of them had different reasons and I had a different attitude to each one, depending on their level of involvement."


It took four days to work through them all. (One of the youths pleaded not guilty, so didn't take part).  


Sam refused to take part if lawyers were present, because he felt they might inhibit the free flow of information.  


Each conference was different. Some went more smoothly than others. The first meeting went well, with the offender turning up despite an acute illness that required him going to an emergency after-hours doctor in the middle of the night.  


"It was very encouraging, so we went on to the next one."  


The second meeting was much more emotional, and Sam took several breaks outside the room to try to work through his anger.  


"In the end it was all good -- once we'd worked through all the misunderstandings of what had happened."


The third meeting went extremely well, with Sam and the offender reaching an understanding quickly.  


The fourth was "really terrible. I was really angry with him. It was quite difficult for him because he had no idea how it had affected me. I'd been suppressing it and it all came out in a rush."


Sam was impressed with the way the meeting was handled by the facilitators and the offender: "He could have called it quits at any stage."


Sam was so angry that he said he would let the offender fall if he came across him hanging on the side of a cliff face. "By the end of the meeting I told him that I would definitely help him up. The facilitators did a really great job at keeping things calm."


All the offenders had been drinking and some claimed not to remember aspects of what had happened.  


Sam believes that the lowering of the drinking age and easy access to alcohol were contributing factors to their actions.


He sent a message to the Judge that he didn't want them to go to prison, and in the end they were given suspended sentences of imprisonment. The offenders agreed to pay him reparation.   


Restorative justice is 'good, but not for everyone," says Sam. "People should look at it themselves before deciding whether to go through with it. For some people it may be healing. For me it was. I recommend that people should give it a try.  


"The process is meant for victims and offenders. It is not meant to help the judges or the facilitators.   


"The offender gets to see the victim as a human being. The victim gets to shake the skeletons and bury them -- to exorcise the ghost.  


"Give it a shot and go in with an open mind. Try not to hold grudges. One of the best things a victim and offender can do is to meet without the word of the law hanging over them. There is no smokescreen and they can be themselves. They all need that space, but they can't get that within a court room.   


"Restorative justice is not a soft option. Some of the deepest scars that people can't see get dealt with at a meeting. It is not a soft option for a victim, and it is not a soft option for an offender."


Foottnote: Sam later applied for, and was awarded, passes on the grounds that acute stress had affected his year's results.




Reprinted from Te Ara Whakatika: Newsletter of the court-referred restorative justice project

. November/December 2001. Issue 6.




March  2003


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