Thursday, February 22, 2018

Reflections on Harm and Transformative Justice

by Justin Piché (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

We live in a violent society that reproduces and is reproduced by violent institutions that maintain inequality and injustice. Among the structures of violence that reproduce colonialist, classist, racist, misogynist, heterosexist, ableist, ageist, and other oppressive social relations is the ‘criminal justice’ system. 

The penal system, like other violent social structures, works – it works for those who wish to preserve power over those that they need to keep down to maintain relations of domination. It does this in a number of ways, including by advancing the notion that justice is done when an individual is charged and tried for a criminalized harm, found innocent or guilty, and punished if deemed culpable. In the process, power relations that give rise to conflicts are disappeared, ensuring that structures of domination remain largely unquestioned and unaltered, while also letting those who perpetrate normalized violence off the hook for the work we all need to do to move towards abolishing or unlearning violence in all our relations.

If harm is to be transformed into an opportunity to dismantle dominant structures as a means of reducing instances of violence, there’s a need to conceptualize justice as a collective endeavour, one whereby responsibility for violence is shared, although borne primarily by perpetrators and those who benefit from the existence of oppressive structures. But how can this be done? For some, the answer lies in the pursuit of transformative justice in which survivors of harm and persons who have caused harm engage in a process, whether apart or together, supported by their communities to identify the roots and impacts of violence, as well as develop strategies to meet the human needs that arise when conflicts occur and to work towards eradicating violent structures.     

To bring this vision to life requires the kind of capacity building that groups like Critical Resistance promote. Without such capacity building, survivors don’t have access to a healing justice process that doesn’t appropriate their conflicts as property and reduce their role to that of a state witness set on a collision course with defence attorneys who seek to dismantle and undermine their understanding of what’s happened to them.  Without such capacity building, perpetrators aren’t held accountable in a way that promotes self-transformation and non-violence. Without such capacity building, our communities miss an opportunity to problematize life-constraining social relations and transform them into life-affirming ones.

Having said this, transformative justice can only be strived for if survivors of harm want to go such a route, if the accused would agree to take part in a process where they accept they are responsible for causing harm to others, and if people are willing to form communities of accountability and support around the parties in conflict. This may seem like a risky endeavour that may fail to live up to its promise, especially in the wake of profound suffering and pain, but we cannot do worse than the 'justice' process we have at present.