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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Island Voices
Apology is justice for many

By Lorenn Walker

Recently, Ellen Goodman wrote about the submarine that crashed into the Ehime Maru and the value of apologies. She suggested that "personal remorse and forgiveness" could be universal human needs and not something culturally determined.

She added, however, "I don't believe remorse is a substitute for justice."

Goodman has made a good first step in acknowledging emotional needs when people are hurt and how our legal system has negatively influenced our use of apologizing, but she falls short when she indicates that remorse is not a "substitute for justice."

First, just what is justice? Is it really retribution, punishment and vengeance? Or should justice restore people after they have been harmed?

Second, who should decide what justice is when someone admits that his or her behavior has hurt another? Should justice be determined by paid professionals and experts, or should the actual victims of the wrongdoing along with the affected community, and the perpetrators of the harm, decide what justice is in each particular case?

South Africa's Desmond Tutu, recipient of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Peace, says in his moving book "No Future Without Forgiveness" that "justice, restorative justice, is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiving, and for reconciliation."

Many victims of juvenile crime in Hawai'i agree with Tutu. As one such victim indicated, a "verbal apology was all he needed." Research shows that remorse is often what most victims want.

For example, last year on O'ahu, 102 randomly selected first-time juvenile law violators who admitted their wrongdoing participated in restorative justice conferences. In these conferences, the juvenile offenders sat in circles with the people who were most affected by their misbehavior. Victims, or their representatives, attended the conferences if the actual victim did not wish to attend (out of 30 assault cases, 21 of the actual victims attended the conferences).

Also attending the conferences were the victims' and offenders' supporters, who were usually parents, family or close friends. Often school staff participated when crimes occurred on campus. All of the conferences resulted in written agreements, which were reached by group consensus of all the participants.

Each agreement reflects a different concept of justice, but 72 percent of all the agreements simply sought symbolic gestures (i.e., apologies) from the juveniles. Over 400 people attended the conferences, and afterward, when asked if "justice was served with this conference?"practically all of them responded positively — only four people did not think the conferences were just.

Compared to current Western criminal justice processes, conferences are more just to most people — even offenders. And ideally, isn't justice really something that should be determined by the victims, the affected community and the offenders? Aren't they in the best position to say what they need, or what they should do, after wrongdoing?

Most people don't need professionals to speak for them when they're hurt or they have hurt others, and most people don't need professionals to decide what justice is for them. If an apology is necessary for some to heal after wrongdoing, then let's allow people to give them and receive them. Let's stop being so quick to impose our own ideas about what we think justice is on others.

Allowing hurt people the opportunity to say what they need to get on with their lives is part of the healing process. It's time we recognize that no matter what our cultural heritage, we're all human beings and we all need to heal after being hurt, and after we hurt others.

Retribution is not always justice for all people. Let's work together to promote restorative justice in Hawai'i for all our sakes.

Lorenn Walker, J.D., M.P.H., is a health educator and mediator who designs resiliency development and conflict resolution programs.