Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Crime and Traditional Punishment

Something I'd be interested to get others' opinion on - in perusing the ADN Newsreader, they highlighted this Canadian "sentencing circle" practice.

From the article:

The sentencing circle is about "community building," he says; it is about "healing" those affected by crime, and those who committed it. It is repairing relations; making victims and perpetrators "feel better" with the outcome of a criminal incident. It is also, he admits, a rebuff of the retributive, let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime philosophy that has guided Canadian justice since this country's founding.

This is an idea I've never been quite comfortable with - and the article even goes to lengths to describe victims and members of the community who are not comfortable with it. Our own brief example here in Alaska was the "banishment" to an island in Southeast several years back for those two young men. Or was it Washington? I don't recall the details - I was in high school I think - but I do remember thinking it was a strange concept.

Some of the problem of that case, from what I remember my grandmother talking about, was that the leadership was all askew. In traditional times, you wouldn't just select a person with a law background to decide - and in that case it was not a clan leader, or a group of Elders - it was a Native guy who also happened to be a judge.

Some of the problem is trying to smash tradition with modern society and expecting the same results as when the traditions were founded. The article says that the offender's chance of recommitting the crime is way, way down from the lock 'em up approach... yet it also talks about the pressure the victims feel to accept and forgive - I couldn't abide that in any form.

I can't speak with any authority on this subject, however, and what little I know comes from articles like this, and knowing how my own community, and culture, handled "justice." In that case, if the state justice system had not stepped in, the crimes would have continued to be committed (as they had before the state stepped in.) I don't think this is a unique characteristic of an Alaskan or strongly Alaska Native small town - I think it is the way we all are now. The objective law must step in.

But then, I am clearly basing mine more on the "personal experience" level, not always the most reliable. What was interesting is that there was also an article in the Juneau Empire today about needing reform in the prison system. There is strong evidence showing getting guys rehab means those people are much less likely to commit more crimes - as unpopular as prisoner rehab seems to be, I'd much rather pay for them to get rehabiliated than for the expense of their public defense and keeping them locked up for the next umpteen years.

At the same time, do I feel the same way about the person that has just committed the crime against me? For all the objectivity we try and project onto law, emotion is one strong motivator.

Clearly, the system we have now for prisoners is not working (and seems even more the case in Alaska.) I can't say I'm for going back to the traditional methods of dealing with these crimes, but I am for looking at a different approach. Locking them up and throwing away the key is not only not working - it is a drain on our community, our productivity, our economy.


hello said...

Raven, you may find this page useful as a resource starting point. http://www.livingjusticepress.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7BB0E0F7C0-312E-4EC3-9F5F-D998DD98237B%7D

Casey said...

Raven, I am a Canadian who lives in the far north of Manitoba. We have many native communities surrounding our home, and the sentencing circle is a huge asset in my opinion.

I have been a social worker for over 26 years now...and have discovered that especially in areas where there are a lot of first nations people...our prisons are full of them.

Just an example. If a white man in our town gets caught drinking and driving, it is not publicized and he goes to court on a different day than a first nations persons would. The same goes for domestic violence.

I dont know if you heard about this, but last year in Northern Sask. in January in minus 40 celsius cold, and native man took his 2 wee girls outside with nothing but underwear on. Because he was drinking he somehow lost them, and the poor tots froze to death only yards from the home. they were 2 and 1 year old.

This man went to court of course, but it was decided against the advice of the prosecuter and because of what I believe is a forward thinking judge, it was decided a sentencing circle would decide punishment.. Of course there was the usual outcry in the majority of the white community but I applauded it. That horrific event touched the lives of every person living on that particular reserve. I believe the circle is the only way for that community as well as the grieving and remorseful father to heal. Oh, I have no doubt he will be sentenced to seek help for substance abuse, but probably he will have to meet regularly with elders of the community. He will have to listen to painful things, and he will have no choice but to deal with his issues. Prison would only enable him to hide from them. It would serve no purpose.

This is one white woman who has worked with and for native organizations...and I trust their ways often more than I trust white societies ways.

Love your blog by the way.


Writing Raven said...

Hmmm.... both of these are very interesting. I think I may be more undecided than ever. :)

Thank you, problem child, for the great resources - this has helped with several things I'm looking at actually, and I didn't know there was this much material.

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