Restoring Community

"We must also propose new ways of life ... that means shifting from a punitive mindset to a restorative one."

I'm working on a new eForum article about a program called FaithCARE which applies restorative practices to faith communities and congregations. I've recently had the opportunity to interview Mark Vander Vennen of Shalem Mental Health Network in Ontario, Canada about this project and to talk to Bruce Schenk of IIRP Canada again, who partners with Shalem and has been very active in developing the program.

So it was pleasant to see this piece by Mark which discusses the need for restorative responses in light of a "tough-on-crime" law currently moving its way through the Canadian legislature. I'm reposting the article below, but the original piece can be found in Northumberland Today by clicking here.

A new year for building community

by Mark Vander Vennen

'Tis the season for flurries of New Year's resolutions. I like these flurries. The end of the year encourages reflection on the year gone by and possible changes in the new year.

Here's my 2012 New Year's resolution: to help find alternative responses to harm-doing and crime than those found in the federal government-sponsored The Safe Streets and Communities Act, currently before the Senate. The Bill proposes to make communities safer by increasing punishment through mandatory minimum sentencing and removing judges' discretion.

Remarkably, the bill is opposed by numerous police associations, judges, victims' groups, faith communities, lawyers and provinces just about everyone associated with the criminal justice system. No wonder: the evidence is overwhelming that increased incarceration results in higher, not lower, rates of reoffending. And over the past 25 years crime rates for most types of crime have dramatically dropped.

But as citizens it is not enough to oppose. We must also propose new ways of life, not just in alternative policies but also in our daily activities. In my opinion, here that means shifting from a punitive mindset to a restorative one.

What do I mean? Our current punitive response to harm-doing, not just in criminal justice but also in schools and workplaces asks three basic questions: 1) What rules (or laws) have been broken? 2) Who did it? 3) What is the appropriate sanction or punishment?

Notice that the victim, along with others affected by the harm, is entirely missing. As a social worker, having testified in both criminal and family courts, I have seen first-hand the marginalization of victims and others affected from the current adversarial justice process. I have also seen close up the failure of "zero tolerance" policies in schools.

In a restorative framework, and in environments as diverse as schools, workplaces, faith communities and criminal processes, these basic questions are asked: 1) Who has been hurt? 2) What are their needs? 3) Whose obligations are these?

Here the needs of the victim and others affected are front and centre. And the evidence is compelling that restorative justice is effective in reducing crime.

Where will communities find the inspiration to support this shift? One potential source, despite their sometimes unconscionable histories, are faith communities. All of the world's major religions have restorative justice at the core of their DNA. Wouldn't it be something if faith traditions (including my own Christian one) engaged in restorative practice internally, with other religions, and in their broader communities?

None of this is easy, and restorative justice is not meant for every situation. But many organizations are practicing restorative justice, including the Shalem Mental Health Network, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, and the International Institute of Restorative Practices - Canada, headed up by Northumberland County's own Bruce Schenk. Google for more information. And go to Smart Justice to learn about the proposed Omnibus Bill.

This year, let's resolve to build healthier relationships and safer, more connected communities.

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Mark Vander Vennen, a long-time Cobourg resident, is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and co-author of Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, Foreword by Desmond Tutu.

via A new year for building community - Northumberland Today - Ontario, CA.