Crime, punishment, reconciliation

Personalist philosophy brings a central contribution to the question of the legal relations between people and between people and the state.

In Denmark we punish people through fines or prison. This has a deterrent effect and promotes the sense of justice in society. If one can break the law without perceptible consequences the chances that people start taking the law into their own hands in order to secure justice increases. The concept of imprisonment, furthermore, has the effect of isolation – the criminal is isolated from the surrounding society and is prevented from committing further offence for a period of time.

However, imprisoning people only has the effect of keeping the perpetrator away from society. In itself it does not contribute to the prevention of future crime and does not help the victim process the offence. On the contrary it is a fact that the criminal through his or her time in prison builds a network among other criminals and thereby is retained in a criminal environment.

Some theories of crime view the offender as a victim of his or her environment. A problematic upbringing, poor living conditions, unjust systems, or unfortunate circumstances may turn a person into a criminal. Or in popular terms: Blame society. Others take a more individualist approach, emphasizing the responsibility of the offender and correspondingly downplaying the circumstances.

There may be good reasons for looking at the circumstances that lead people towards a criminal career, but a personalist way of thinking would start elsewhere. In case of violence, robbery or the likes, there are (at least) two parties involved – the offended party and the party who committed the crime. And within a personalist scope they are not merely victim or perpetrator; both parties are persons. This implies that both parties should be thought of and treated as humans, and that the course of action must have the right consequences so the relationship can be restored in as far as this is possible. Our society is built upon the perpetrator’s responsibility to the principles of law, whereas less attention is given to the perpetrator’s responsibility to the victim. This approach robs both parties of the opportunity for reconciliation and actual restoration.

Some indigenous peoples in New Zealand and Canada, among other places, have an ancient legal system known as restorative justice that is built on exactly these principles. Here all those affected by a given crime are summoned in order to agree on a suitable consequence for the crime committed.

The same reconciling and relational understanding of justice was unfolded in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid system. The nation’s truth and reconciliation committee completed a unique process of reconciliation in which the central element was not retaliation and punishment, but an attempt to heal wounds, restore imbalance and rebuilt broken relationships – A rehabilitation for both victim and perpetrator. According to the head of the commission, Bishop Desmond Tutu, this approach brought encouragement rather than discouragement in relation to the social responsibility among all citizens.

Victim-offender conferences

A significant step on the road is the so-called victim-offender conferences that were recently introduced permanently throughout Denmark. A victim-offender conference is a meeting between the victim and the perpetrator through which the offended can come to terms with the unpleasant event by telling how he or she experienced it. The perpetrator, in turn, can give his or her version of the story and get a chance to apologize. In the words of Charlotte Wegener, coordinator of victim-offender conferences in Denmark: “It is a primal drive in humans that they are aware of having done something wrong, they have a need to say sorry.” (Politiken 9/1-2011)

Obviously crimes occur in which victim-offender conferences, or similar concepts, are not applicable due to the nature of the crime or to the unequal power relation between the parties involved. For instance this is the situation in most cases related to incest. But the first steps that have been taken trough victim-offender conferences in Denmark can easily be continued, so it becomes the rule rather than the exception that the victim and the offender meet, and thereby find help in their attempt to move on.

In Norway, participation in a victim-offender conference is rewarded with at penalty reduction, and in Australia the victim and his or her family can suggest a fair punishment.

Such initiatives should not necessarily be copied, but they are examples of how it is possible to unfold a more personalist way of thinking within a legal system such as the Danish one.