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Punishment Not Crime Answer

Mennonite Central Committee - News Service - October 26, 1994


If harsher punishment worked, U.S. would lead world in crime reduction, Mennonite Central Committee Victim-Offender Ministries Director says

WINNIPEG, Man. -- Recent highly-publicized murders and other crimes across Canada have resulted in renewed calls for longer sentences, restricted or no parole and a return to capital punishment. But harsher punishment is not the answer to Canada's crime problem says Wayne Northey, who directs Victim-Offender Ministries for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada.

Northey, who has been involved in the criminal justice field for 20 years, agrees that "our current system is failing victims, and is not dealing appropriately with perpetrators of crime. But treating offenders more harshly isn't the answer. If it was, the U.S. would lead the world in crime reduction. Yet despite a prison population that doubled between 1980 and 1990, the crime rate in that country increased."

As well, Northey notes, despite the reintroduction of a widely-publicized death penalty in several states, "there was an upturn in the murder rate" in the U.S., while Canada's murder rate has decreased 27 percent since the death penalty was abolished in this country.

Only one country in the industrialized world has actually reduced crime, Northey says. That country is Japan, "which also has the lowest per capita imprisonment rate in the world." He adds that the Japanese "have attributed their success to a system called 'reintegrative shaming' or 'confession, repentance, and absolution.'"

Northey adds that MCC's extensive work in mediation since the mid-1970s has taught the agency that "many crime survivors ultimately do not want vengeance. Rather, they want recovery. They tell us that revenge inhibits the healing process. They want answers, interaction, confrontation, healing and closure. They want consequences conducive to their restoration. They tell us often that their healing became mysteriously tied to the offenders' healing. But they also say that offenders must learn to empathize with their victims, and in no way be let off lightly."

For Northey, the best approach to crime is a justice system "that mobilizes resources first for the immediate victims of crime. Mediation resources should also be made available for all victims of crime." As well, he says, there should be a system which is "extremely efficient in the apprehension and conviction of criminals, which vigorously holds offenders accountable for their crimes, and offers the maximum opportunity for restoration to all parties involved in the crime."

Finally, he suggests that offenders "be given the impetus and opportunity to make amends," either by paying for damage or loss caused by their action or through some kind of community service.

"All of these are examples of what is called 'restorative justice,'" Northey says. "It's quite different from the retributive, or a punishment-centred justice which operates in Canada today." Restorative justice is based on the biblical emphasis on restoring people to wholeness and community; it includes community-based mediation programs which deal with pre-criminal conflicts and all levels of crime in the Criminal Code of Canada, including serious and violent crime.

"It seems politically expedient at present to call for harsher treatment of offenders," Northey says. "But I hope the government will resist such pressures because they are clearly counter-productive to restoration and healing of offenders and victims alike."