Restorative justice is the way of thinking about crime and the social responses to crime that is a conceptual alternative to punishment and penal law. While the logic of punishment is that of visiting the moral and legal consequences of an offence upon the offender, the logic of restorative justice is one of restoring a form of social capital that has been diminished or destroyed by the offence. A typical such social capital is trust. Assume that a crime has been committed in a community that has impacted the people’s trust in their security and that of their family members and friends, their trust in the community itself, and their trust in each other. In order to restore the trust something must be done with regard to the offence and the offender, however in a non-punitive context. For example, the offender might be kept in isolation from the community as long as trust is lacking, and this may mean for ever. Such detention, though, is not punitive, and the conditions in detention should not be designed so as to inflict suffering on the offender, as they are in traditional prisons and jails. There is no assumption that the detention ought to be unnecessarily unpleasant, but there is an assumption that it may last as long as the community does not want the offender back at large. The difference of restorative justice is considerable at least on two levels. On one level, it benefits the offender in the sense that their existence in detention need not be very different from their accommodation and availability of resources in the society. This seems “unjust” especially in cases of severe crimes. However, on the other hand, the detention is not subject to a fixed rule or measure of justice or proportionality to the offence: it very much depends on the disposition and identity of the community and the offender, and will likely be very different for the same offences in different communities, thus suggesting an “injustice” on the other side of the coin, against the interests of the offender.
Restorative justice is thus not “justice” proper, for our very concept of justice is based on the punitive and reciprocal reasoning with regard to the values a particular offence and offender have violated. It is a form of handling or managing deviance and crime in an optimizing way. There is obviously a significant room in restorative justice to address psychotherapeutic issues, as the key normative structure in restorative justice is the relationship between the offender and the community, rather than an abstract normative standard such as “just desert” or the supposed “deterrent effect”. Managing relationships is a primary job for psychotherapy and this is why restorative justice is a natural institutional and policy home for psychotherapeutic thinking and methodology.
In a sense, restorative justice faces us with aspects of our collective identity that we would otherwise not be aware of, with values, lacks and insufficiency that manifest in transgressions by individual members of our communities, yet these insufficiencies are often our own, induced by our way of life and our sense of community.
On 3 May 2023, a 13 year old boy by the name Kosta Kecmanovic entered the primary school “Dr Vladislav Ribnikar” in Belgrade, Serbia, armed with two handguns and two Molotov Cocktails and started a shooting spree where he murdered the school security guard, 9 students ranging from 11 to 13 years of age, and wounded five students and a teacher. Kosta had been an exemplary student, the sun of a reputable, non-delinquent family, with ho prior history of violence. The outcome of the crime was that Kosta, who is below age for criminal responsibility, is de facto illegally held in a psychiatric facility, where he is in isolation and attends school online, while his father and mother are prosecuted for the alleged unconscienscious keeping of firearms (the father is the legal owner of the gun used to commit the massacre). Much of the debate after the massacre focuses on who is responsible, where the least amount of attention is paid to the victims and the position and views of the victims’ families.. The debate in the Belgrade community has evolved in a very ugly direction and concerns attempts by a majority in the School Council and in politics who are against the creation of a Memorial Centre for the victims in a part of the school where the shooting took place, arguing instead that the school should continue as before and that this is “the best way of honoring the deceased”, contrary to explicit demands by the victims’ families that the school building where the tragedy occurred should never again be used as a school.
The described debate shows how the lack of restorative justice reverberates in discord and inability to accept collective insufficiencies in the collective mind and public reception of key values. The atmosphere after the crime, the confrontations in public and political divisions that have arisen amidst the debate over the memorialization of the victims reflect the social context in which Kosta Kecmanovic had grown to commit the crime. It is what happens after the crime that largely accounts for the contextual causation of the crime itself, because behavior after the crime reveals the characters, the school policies, and values and views, including a dramatic absence of empathy, in the general public and in the school community itself, all of which would have been instrumental for the psychological preparation of Kosta to commit the murder. The boy is often described by those who witnessed his statements to the police and prosecution as “cold” and “devoid of empathy”, but few notice that, if this is indeed so, and not the result of the boy being medicated, then it is exactly the reflection of the coldness and lack of empathy of the school community, which has been exercised right after the crime.
The epistemic dimensions of restorative justice face us with the above type of insights into what a particular crime means and what it teaches us about our community. Kosta Kecmanovic teaches the community an important though unpleasant lesson about the lack of empathy in the school and in the school surroundings, urban and social. The response to the plight and distress of the victims’ families, which is extremely disloyal and destructive, teaches the community a lesson about the retardation of communal values and a sense of collective identity, which typically reflects across a range of community issues, ranging from social to foreign policy and national security. All of these lessons are very much like the ones gained in psychotherapy, where insights into deeply layered awareness of the self typically precedes external behavioral change. It is challenging to consider whether the community around the described school shooting (where the perpetrator is the youngest mass killer in history) would change its behavior and choices around empathy and the need to secure an adequate memorialization for the shooting victims if it was able to face the similarities and patterns encompassing Kosta Kecmanovic’s actions and their own behavior post-tragedy.
Can restorative justice suggest that the crimes committed in our communities, at least psychologically, are “our” crimes, that the psychological ownership of these crimes extends to all members of our community insofar as our actions post-crime reflect the causes and circumstances that have contributed to the commission of the crime in the first place? Is that, perhaps, the reason restorative justice is a perspective so many societies shy away from adopting as their dominant paradigm of dealing with crime, namely the potential of restorative justice to mirror the crime back to the community at large? (to be continued).