The new look of ‘people’s justice’

Getting to the root of criminal acts as a way of creating true resolution

A NEW KIND OF JUSTICE<br>Brazilian native Joao Salm is an expert on restorative justice. “There is good and bad in all of us,” he told a Chico State corrections class Monday evening. “You have to go beyond yourself—put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Brazilian native Joao Salm is an expert on restorative justice. “There is good and bad in all of us,” he told a Chico State corrections class Monday evening. “You have to go beyond yourself—put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Photo By matt siracusa

True story: In Brazil, two young boys were playing a game of Russian roulette with a real gun. It ended when one of the boys killed the other. Later, the victim’s grief-stricken mother looked the other boy in the eyes and said, “I forgive you.”

To Joao Salm, the mother’s generous act was an example of restorative justice at work.

Salm, an associate faculty member at Arizona State University’s School of Justice & Social Inquiry, spoke during a Chico State University corrections class Monday evening (Nov. 10), sharing his four years of research into restorative justice.

“There is a conflict,” he said, describing the theory’s focus. “From that conflict, the authorities [courts, police, prosecutors] gather and decide what should be done to get that conflict solved. They determine what would be the right solutions, think of alternatives and try to regain the trust that once existed.

“I’m passionate about restorative justice,” Salm continued. “I think restorative justice allows us to democratically solve conflicts.”

Salm’s lecture followed Azim Khamisa’s speech last month, “Restorative Justice: A New Paradigm for Social Transformation,” in which Khamisa shared the story of his only son’s murder and how he uses that experience to teach people about nonviolent responses to violent behavior.

Essentially, restorative justice is the opposite of traditional justice systems that focus on punishment and where the state is in charge. With restorative justice, the parties involved in the conflict regain ownership.

So how does it really work? If an individual robs a grocery store, the guilty party and the store owner would meet, talk about forgiveness and gain solutions to the conflict, as well as track down the root of the problem. For instance, Salm said, a man might have stolen because he lost his job and his family was hungry. That doesn’t give him the right to steal, but it explains why he did the crime.

“Those things [conflicts] will happen again and again if the root problem that took them to the restorative-justice meeting is not solved,” he added.

Traditional criminal-justice systems do not focus on solving the conflict—they don’t have that expectation, Salm said. In a complex world, Salm explained, “we have been reduced to a one-dimensional, economically driven society, different than the world that should be.”

Salm, a native of Brazil, is a member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, an international organization dedicated to enhancing the practice and public understanding of conflict resolution. His research is based on how restorative-justice principles are implemented in the courts or legal systems and in communities.

“The best way to implement and not be so limiting is to create a dialogue between community initiatives and the courts,” he said.

The structured criminal-justice system does not make room for emotions and feelings, he said. In the case of the two boys playing Russian roulette, Salm said, the mother of the victim told her son’s assailant that she wanted him to be part of her life because she didn’t have her son.

“I would like you to come to my home and visit me every day. … If my kid had to die for you to be aware [of the consequences of your actions], to be more responsible, then so be it.”

Restorative justice isn’t for everyone, Salm said. It cannot be forced on people who aren’t ready. However, tackling the root of a problem by engaging in dialogue, and truly listening, can bring change.

A Chico State student discussed the 8-year-old Arizona boy who recently allegedly shot and killed his father and another man, asking Salm his opinion.

“If an 8-year-old has a weapon, and has an intention of killing, there’s something wrong there. … Where did we go wrong in not really having dialogue with this kid, and not perceiving that something was wrong?” Salm questioned. “The harm is done. He killed somebody. My question would be: How did it get to that point?