Restorative Justice – Accountability and a fresh start

Jim Consedine, a prison chaplain for 23 years,  explains why the modern prison system is just warehousing the poor and urges that we take a fresh approach to dealing with those who offend.

Widespread use of imprisonment for crime is a reasonably recent phenomenon. Christians, notably the Quakers, promoted prisons in the late 18th century as a merciful reform of the excessive punishments that were being inflicted on offenders. The imprisonment of the worst offenders was intended to be a more humane way of dealing with criminals. The “prison” was modelled on a medieval monk’s cell. There the offender was expected to meditate on the crime and be reformed through solitude, work and penance, thus the name “penitentiary”.

Before the reform, local magistrates or JPs could impose any sentence they thought fit on an offender. The emphasis was on human suffering and public humiliation. Torture, whippings, the workhouse, the stocks, mutilation, transportation and the gallows were inflicted for even the smallest infractions of perceived good order. Prisons were kept mainly for debtors or used as holding cells.

This regime of punishment was brutal and the poor and the working classes suffered disproportionately. For example, in 1823 my 21 year-old great-great grandfather Thomas Sweeney was arrested with three others for the arson of an absentee English landlord’s house in Tipperary and sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation to Australia. In the same week a mother of six was sentenced to be “whipped through the town” for stealing food, three 11-13 year-old children were ordered to be whipped for stealing, and three men were sentenced to death for cattle rustling.

Prison as an Industry

At the beginning of the 20th century attempts were made to focus penitentiaries on the rehabilitation of the inmates but the efforts were too half-hearted to succeed. Instead mass incarceration in prison-industrial complexes mushroomed and have now become one of the biggest industries in the world. For example, in the US, there are 2.3 million sentenced people in prison, while a further 11 million churn through jail for short periods each year. Prisons have become a massive self-perpetuating industry.

Today more than 9 million people are in prisons around the world. In May 2016 New Zealand had 9,500 men and women imprisoned, considerably higher per capita than either Australia or Britain.

There are huge vested interests maintaining the prison system, including profit-seeking corporations with thousands of employees now involved in running them. They need crime to keep them operative. And the corporate media feeds the fear and insecurity of the public by sensationalising crime and profiling particular groups as criminally disposed and/or scapegoats. This approach sells papers and gains TV ratings and feeds an insatiable appetite among the public.

Prisons worldwide now reflect a monumental failure of social policy. The marginalised people the Christian reformers sought to help have ended up being penalised even more. What started as a reform has turned into a system that Pope John Paul 11 described in 1988 as a “structure of sin”.

The Poor Imprisoned

The poor continue to be over represented in prison populations. The profile of New Zealand inmates is male and mid-twenties. Three quarters of them are single, divorced or separated, two-thirds are beneficiaries and three-quarters are unemployed. Half the population has severe alcohol and/or drug problems and a half have had a psychiatric assessment. Half of them are from dysfunctional homes. A fifth of them are functionally illiterate and only a tenth have formal educational qualifications. Just under a half are Pakeha and the others are mainly Māori and Pacific Islander. New Zealand spends $90,000-95,000 per year, per prisoner. This money mainly is spent on security, not the education, healing and rehabilitation of the inmates. Furthermore, this imprisonment has collateral consequences on their families, their children and the wider community.

Restorative Justice Alternatives to Prison

While those who have committed heinous crimes need to be imprisoned, many others do not. There are at least five alternative non-violent processes available. If they were better resourced and promoted properly they could reduce re-offending, help offenders take responsibility for their behaviour, produce healing for victims, make our communities safer and would be significantly less expensive. No tax dollar is wasted more easily and spent with less accountability than the prison dollar.

Alternative programmes include diversion, which diverts those arrested from the court and works with them to takes up options like apology and restitution for the offence. Diversion is geared to stop the person becoming involved further in crime. Many more of those arrested in NZ could be diverted but the process should be in lay hands, not with the police.

Habilitation Centres were established first by the Government following an Enquiry in 1988. Named from the Latin word, habilitare, meaning to empower or enable, Habilitation Centres recognise that the majority of offenders need to deal with their anti-social issues – aggression, sexual aberration, drug, gambling, alcohol addictions – if they are to live useful crime-free futures. However, Habilitation Centres need greater resources and more political muscle behind them.

Community Panels can deal successfully with many offenders who are willing to appear before them, face their charges and have them dealt with by a lay panel of three community representatives. The panel has the power to reach agreement with the offender as to sanctions. These can include seeking certain behavioural changes, reparation and an apology.

New Zealand has had Restorative Justice conferencing (with some exceptions) for its juvenile offenders since 1989 and for adults since 2002. The process involves a skilled facilitator inviting victims and offenders to meet and face one another. Both victims and offenders are encouraged to bring family and friends in support. At the conference an apology is offered, explanations given as to why the offending took place and reparation is discussed.  The process requires the offender to acknowledge the victim, offer apology, answer their questions and to offer restitution where applicable. The victims have the opportunity to express how the offending affected them and make suggestions about sanctions.

Usually a consensus is reached about the recommendation to be referred to a judge. The offender signs a contract and the court monitors the progress. The secret of Restorative Justice conferencing lies in its “carrot and stick” approach. Everyone have a stake in a successful outcome. Ideally it should provide a win-win outcome for all.

Transformative Justice processes recognise that the roots of much crime lie in the socio-economic, family and social backgrounds of the offenders. A Transformative Conference creates the opportunity to begin to address those wider issues including inter-generational abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, family dysfunction, addictions and poverty.

Huge Overhaul Needed

Our understanding of crime – what it is and who does it – needs to undergo a paradigm shift. We can no longer settle for a punitive 19th century understanding to help us cope with 21st century advances which reveal the fundamental interconnection of all life on our planet and our relationships with one another.

Is it not time that we recognised that the prison system does not protect us from the gravest crimes, nor from some of the greatest criminals? For example, those who profit from environmental crime that threatens the life of the planet. The giant polluters of the oceans, rivers and the air. The corporations driving de-forestation which is systematically killing our planet’s lungs. The major beneficiaries of global neo-liberal capitalism, which Pope Francis has condemned as exploitative and gravely sinful.

We have worldwide poverty and racism and sexism endemic in some countries, illegal mass detentions, widespread corruption among governments, ongoing wars and the armament transnationals that profit from them. Is this not systemic criminality? Who is held accountable? Who goes to prison? Who even defines such actions as criminal, much less as crimes against humanity?

We usually turn a blind eye to those crimes and focus instead on those we have always targeted – the poor and the marginalised. This is not to minimise serious crimes in our own society, but to place them in a wider context of criminality and sin.


We need an enormous effort now in New Zealand to change our criminal justice system. It is time to grapple with courage the complex social and global issues around crime and address offenders with more merciful, effective and transformative options than what is being offered now.

If the Church is prepared to proclaim Christ’s prophetic word and healing ministry, then we have a vital role to play. We need to revisit our biblical roots and social justice teachings. Then review prisons through a fresh lens.

Jim Consedine is a priest of the Christchurch Diocese and the founding national co-ordinator of the Restorative Justice Network.