Saying Sorry by Christopher G. Moore

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Every culture has an equivalent word for ‘sorry’—a universal expression of apology and acceptance of responsibility for the harm done. Normally we consider such an apology as a private, personal affair. What if the concept is brought into the criminal justice system? The first requirement would be for the accused to admit to the crime. The accused would have to confess that he or she has committed the wrongful act harming the victim.

In Thailand, the authorities regularly employ police organized ‘reenactments’ of the crime. After the accused has confessed, he (it’s almost always a he) is either taken to the scene of the crime or seated at a table in a police station surrounded by uniformed police. The accused shows how he committed the crime. Often the victim is photographed pointing a finger at the accused who understands his role. He responds to this staged drama as a lesson in his personal humiliation. His head and eyes are often lowered, and he’s a diminished, pale and defeated person unworthy of nothing but punishment.

Reenactments such as these are not about the kind of moral rapprochement—which translates as ‘bringing together’—between the criminal and victim. There is no attempt at reconciliation. The reenactment is more a kind of inflicting moral scorn and pain on the accused. They are the theatre of tragic farce starring a man in leg irons. This allows the public a chance to join the 2-minute hate session with the suspect as the object of loathing. Reenactment as a close cousin to what we had in the West for centuries the pillory where the offender’s head and arms were imprisonment in a wooden frame and the public invited to inflict their abuse.

In Scotland, legislators are proposing legislation that would create “restorative justice.” Liberal Democrat spokesperson Alison McInness explained the concept, “It provides a form of accountability – a forum to receive an apology. It can enable those who have committed crimes to reflect on their actions, take personal responsibility and appreciate the harm they’ve caused and make amends.”

A crime, especially one involving violence, leaves the injured victim with difficult emotional issues. In this case, the victim isn’t pointing his or her finger at the person who inflicted the harm but explaining the impact the crime had on his or her life. It is the personal story of that suffering and pain and the offender listens to the story and then accepts what he’s done and expresses his sorrow and regret for his actions.

The idea is to use this with young offenders who would be screened by authorities to determine if they accept what they did and are willing to meet the victim, hear her or his story and apologize. Scotland currently has an ad hoc system that has shown positive results. The proposed legislation would enshrine a victim’s right to restorative justice.

The trend to establish a right of victims to take part in restorative justice was contained in a 2012 EU directive, one that the UK signed up to.

Would restorative justice work in a shame-based society like Thailand? A crime reenactment had a different purpose than restorative justice. The criminal who shows the press (the victim may or may not be present) where he stands and illustrates with a hand gesture, fingers like a gun, points at a plainclothes policeman who plays the role of victim. The central players in this drama are the alleged criminal, the police and the media. The victim plays if anything only a minor role—a prop.

It would be an interesting experiment for youthful offenders in a place like Pattaya or Phuket to sit across the table from their victim and hear the victim’s story of how the crime has damaged their life, family, job, health or property. If the victim were a foreigner, a translator would likely be needed. It shouldn’t be a public event with media crawling all over the room for the best camera angle. Most of the young criminals in these highly popular tourist destinations are committing crimes against ‘outsiders’ and in Thai culture ‘outsiders’ aren’t considered as having the same rights, emotions, or humanity as the locals.

Perhaps seeing their victim as another human being seated across from them, someone they’ve hurt, someone who now has recurring problems as a result, might change the attitude of the young offender. It seems to be working in Scotland, it would be worth examining whether the good results on turning around the lives of a tough youth in Glasgow and allowing the victim closure might just be the kind of remedy other legal systems, including the Thai system, could yield a positive outcome.

There are some unresolved issues that should be addressed. If the suspect is a sociopath or psychopath, how meaningful is the expression of sorrow for the pain inflicted? In Scotland it appears that suspects are pre-screened before being allowed to be seated across from the victim. Whether part of that screening is to determine sociopathic or psychopathic personality characteristics isn’t clear. Another issue is whether the potential for a suspect’s empathy for his victim and the victim’s compassion for the suspect can merge into a genuine reconciliation. What such an alternative does provide is a testing ground as to whether our demand for security and justice can be enhanced by bringing together the parties most affected by the crime.

As the target for the program is youth offenders, the possibility of changing a suspect’s attitude by a fine or imprisonment may be less effective than several sessions where he begins to see the ‘victim’ not as the ‘other’ or an ‘object’ but another person who has been harmed by his action. That might be a wake-up call for a young offender. If the Scottish experience is anything to go by, it is waking-up the authorities to a new avenue to rehabilitation. A pilot program for “restorative justice” in Thailand might be worth considering. Who knows, it might catch on and all kinds of people—not just those in the criminal justice system—might benefit from discussing their loss resulting from acts of political violence to drawing border demarcations. Life is full of loss and injury. Our ability to address the aftermath is our weakness. The emotional resolution is left out of the equation. Restorative justice is about restoring the human heart. That takes time. It takes patience and understanding, and it requires trust and belief that healing has a higher priority than punishment.

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