While person gets to know something regarding crime or related issues, the offender, the victim are the two parties that necessarily come to mind. The victim, generally, refers to the party that was harmed as a result of the offender’s violation of a criminal law. The key underlying element in this definition is that a person, the offender, is motivated for financial or personal gain to violate a law, rule, regulation or custom. This violation then leads to the injury of another person, the victim. In this sense, the victim is often seen as an unfortunate consequence of the offending act. What is less obvious when thinking about crime, however, are the circumstances where the focus of the offender is not personal gain or, as in the case or murder or assault, the victim individually. Instead, the focus is on the victim as a representative of the community or group to which they belong or consider themselves a member. Some of the most common acts that fit this category are prejudicial and discriminatory acts that target an individual on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. The following examples illustrate this point.
While the police department of Ferguson, Missouri is internationally known for its involvement in the August 2104 shooting death of Michael Brown; what is less known, but equally important, is the extent to which corruption existed on every level of its police force. It was corruption that was found to drive police actions. According to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, the Ferguson Police Department had an office-wide incentive policy to increase its revenues through law enforcement (DOJ, 2015). It meant that the Ferguson police force, which is predominantly white, regularly targeted African American citizens for arrest and payment of fines. According to the DOJ report, African American residents were substantially more as likely than white residents to be stopped on the street, searched, arrested, fined, bitten by police dogs, and subjected to police force. According to the DOJ report, this occurred even though, African American residents were 26 percent less likely to be carrying contraband or engaged in illegal activity (DOJ 2015). While police actions are not normally considered criminal; the case in Ferguson illustrates that police can act criminally, and more often than not, their crime target African American based simply on the fact of their race.
Another more individualized example is the case of Dylann Roof. He, openly supported white supremacist theories and wrote about the issues he had against all minorities. Consequently, Roof had grown to believe that African Americans were a threat not only to himself personally but also towards the future development of the nation (Levitz et al., 2015). Accordingly, in order to spark the start of an anti-African American movement, in June 2015, he traveled to Charleston, South Carolina where he entered the Emanuel A.M.E Church and killed nine African American church goers who had done nothing wrong other than being Black. In Roof’s case, as mentioned, the motivation of his crime was not for financial gain or an issue that he had with one or all of the victims, but rather that they were representatives of a group that he hated.
Restorative justice is an alternative approach to criminal justice that refuses to accept simply focusing on the traditional retributive justice method of capturing and punishing the offender. The core principle of restorative justice is to repair the harm that has been inflicted by identifying and addressing the underlying behaviors that cause the offending act and compensating the individuals most adversely affected by the offending act, as well as the community in which the act took place (CRJP, 2000). The hope of restorative justice is too essential to restore all stakeholders to the circumstances that existed before the offending act.
There are five main benefits of an effective restorative justice process. First of all, it will reduce the desire or likelihood that a victim will seek retribution or violence against the offender, which can potentially begin a cycle of violence that will only hurt more people. Secondly, it will reduce the victim’s post-traumatic stress and hopefully offer some closure for the effects of the offense. Thirdly, it will allow offenders to intimately understand the pain, harm, and injury that their actions have caused to the victim and the community, with the hope that this understanding will guide them and convince them not to repeat their actions or reoffend in the future. Fourth, it will identify the underlying causes of the offense. It will hopefully provide future warning signals to all stakeholders of what to watch out for in everyone’s attempt to avoid a repeat of the circumstances that led to the actions. Lastly, it will decrease the amount of offender stigmatization in the hope that they develop genuine remorse on their path towards rehabilitation.
Alternatively, there are also some challenges to the initiation and completion of an effective restorative justice process. Perhaps the most important challenge for restorative justice is the willingness for all stakeholders to take part genuinely in the process as a means of resolving the situation. If an offender only agrees to participate because he feels it will lead to a less severe punishment; then the process will most likely fail. Another challenge in the consideration of race-based crimes is untangling the enormously complex elements that are a part of how different races see one another, have experienced one another and perceive the goals that each group wants to achieve. These are issues that are as old as human civilization, and therefore, may not be able to be answered in a restorative justice process (CRJP, 2000).
While there are some restorative justice programs; in the case of criminal acts perpetrated simply on the basis of one’s race, in general, the best restorative justice option would most likely be victim-offender mediation (CJR, 2015). This option is especially relevant in regards to race-based crimes against African American specifically. Victim-offender mediation programs bring the victim and offender together in a non-combative environment where each can voice their thoughts, opinions, and emotions about any relevant topics of concern or topics that may eventually lead to the resolution of the underlying issues. Unlike, other restorative justice programs, the victim-offender mediation program allows stakeholders to describe how they have been affected by the circumstances. It provides the opportunity for victim and offender to learn about what are the influences that are at play and, therefore, come to a mutual understanding that can lead to a breakthrough in the underlying mistrust and dislike.
While a criminal act may have a number of criminological explanations, the most relevant explanation for the victimization of African Americans is the rational choice theory. The rational choice theory argues that people are possessed with free will and the ability to make their own choices. As a result of their free will, people choose to act based on their consideration of what will increase their enjoyment and decrease their unhappiness. In other words, on their analysis of whether or not they will be rewarded or punished. The effect of the rational theory as an explanation is clearly demonstrated when applied to the two scenarios described above, namely the situation in Ferguson and the shootings in Charleston. In both the Ferguson Police Department and Dylann Roof the choice to act as they did. Moreover, in both circumstances, each knew what it was doing was illegal but nevertheless continued either because it made them happy or they did not think that they would get caught or be punished.
Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (CRJP). (2000). Multicultural implications of restorative justice: pitfalls and dangers. Retrieved from www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/reports/restorative_justice/restorative_justice_ascii_pdf/ncj176348.pdf
Center for Justice and Reconciliation (CJR). “Victim Offender Mediation.” 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015. http://restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/about-restorative-justice/tutorial-intro-to-restorative-justice/lesson-3-programs/victim-offender-mediation/
Levitz, J., Bauerlein, V. & Kamp, J. (2015, Jun. 18). ‘Loner’ held in Charleston church killings. Retrieved from www.wsj.com/article/charleston-church-shooting-suspect-dylann-roof-in-police-custody-1434642237
U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). (2015, Mar. 4). Investigation of the Ferguson police department. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf