Issue 4-2022 small

19 July 2001 Edition

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Community Restorative Justice at work

Last week, ROISIN DE ROSA ([email protected]) discussed the theory behind the revolutionary project that is Community Restorative Justice. Here, she examines how such initiatives work in practice.

``I just can't wait to meet them - just to have the chance to show them what it meant for me - the fear I went through. I mean I thought it was something I done on them, that it was my fault, or that people didn't want me living here, something I had done wrong on them. I mean all the time I'm asking, why me? Why did they pick on me?

``And I was really afraid. A lone parent, with two little children - you are on your own. You can't leave the house, or go after anyone attacking your place, to see who it is.

``The last time they attacked the house, it was 2 in the morning. I was in bed upstairs with the baby, Jordan. Lorna woke up. She is only four and a bit. She must have heard something. I went down to get her a drink. The glass shattered all across the front room. A bicycle wheel had been thrown in through the window. If Lorna or the baby had been downstairs at the time, they would have been cut to ribbons.

I just couldn't take any more of it. I'd had stones, bricks, bottles, trash, eggs up against the door - especially at weekends. I never felt safe. Why me?''

Approaching CRJ

Rosie, from Belfast, had first gone to her residents' association about the attacks and the vandalism on her house. ``They said they would check it out for me, but what could they do? I had to pay to put the windows back in, with the new policy of the Housing Executive, which won't pay. It costs anywhere between £35 and £70. Income support is £75 a week. The community collected money to help me put the windows back in. I couldn't afford that once, never mind about every week. But it got to the stage I couldn't take any more of it.'' In the end, someone suggested to Rosie that she approach Community Restorative Justice.

Tommy Holland takes up the story. ``We talked around to some of the groups of young people. We said what had happened. We explained how the whole estate was outraged that this should happen to anyone, especially a lone parent. We told them that whoever it was could have caused a serious injury. Did anyone of them know who had done this to Rosie?''

Mediation

``Two young men, well over 18, old enough to take responsibility themselves, came into us the very next morning. They said that it was they who had thrown the bicycle wheel into Rosie's house. They listened, they explained they were really sorry - in a way it was that they had never thought what it was like to be Rosie, and Rosie learned that it was not because she had done something wrong on them that her house was attacked. It was drunken idiocy, directed at the most convenient house.

``They agreed to pay for the window replacement and the damage, paying back the money to the community which had collected the costs for Rosie. They agreed to meet Rosie, to have the chance to express how they felt. They agreed to explain to other young people the serious damage that such anti-social behaviour can cause. They agreed, in a word, to respect the Charter of Rights under which the right to freedom from fear and anxiety for all living in the community should be respected.

``Of course there may be cases where CRJ doesn't work, where mediation doesn't succeed, but when it comes down to it, people know that a community like ours will not support their behaviour. They will be ostracised by the people. Really, there is no choice.

Taking responsibility

``This is what CRJ is all about,'' explains Tommy. ``Everyone taking responsibility for their lives and their actions. Understanding the effects actions may have on other people, learning to respect their rights. If we had simply given them a beating, what good would that have done? It would simply have reinforced the culture of violence. Ultimately, violent, punitive retributive `justice' offers no solution in the long term within the community. It only escalates the conflict and multiplies itself.

This is CRJ. It's happening in many places, not just Belfast City. There are also projects in Derry, Dungannon, Armagh, and Newry. In the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast, CRJ has been involved in over 400 cases, working along with around 900 people.

Noel McCartney of CRJ in Derry explains. ``We began with us putting out leaflets, door to door, talking to people about CRJ. We left them in the Charter of Rights and came back and asked for their opinion - if there was anything they wanted changed or disagreed with. There was almost 100% favourable response. We asked people to come to a public meeting, to sign up to the charter and the project of building a new community ensuring that rights are respected for and by all.''

A political project?

``It's not a `party political' project - we've asked church people, business people and other political groupings, as well as local people themselves. We want voluntary community groups, statutory agencies, to be part of building this new blueprint for justice in our communities,'' says Tommy Holland.

But in another sense, of course, the project is highly political. ``The charter asks the entire community to agree to work for the dignity and worth of everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, language, sexuality, disability or age. The charter is a platform to fight for social justice. In that sense, of course, the project is highly political. What else, after all, is politics ever about?

``People signed up to a project that crucially rejects violence as a tool for resolving disagreement between individuals and families and undertakes to initiate and cooperate through formal or informal mediation to resolve disputes or respond to crime and to criminal and antisocial behaviour within the community.

``We encouraged everyone to come to the public meetings. We discussed the draft charter of rights. We encouraged people to volunteer their time, to come to the training courses. And the project is mushrooming. Every case takes a lot of time. People give their time voluntarily. No one is allowed to take on more than four cases a month. It would just be too much for people.

``We are not in competition or an alternative to any police service we need in our communities, but we believe that CRJ is an initiative that can begin to build towards a justice system that is transparent, accountable and accessible to every member of the community.''

The political implications are revolutionary. Is it only in communities that have suffered so direly over the past 30 years and have already so great a sense of community, of justice and support for each other, that the CRJ project can build? Few would doubt that CRJ represents the empowerment of the community through a commitment to the equal rights of all within it. By such means the power to create the social change republicans envisage as the Republic, can be taken by the people themselves.


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