Forgiveness Project: What is punishment for if society won’t forgive?

PET’s PhD researcher Morwenna Bennallick writes:

Discussion of criminal justice is often wrapped up in the language of punishment. It is much rarer to hear discussion of why we punish. Rarer still do we hear the word forgiveness. Over the next few months, the Forgiveness Project, a charity advocating restorative approaches to justice, is hosting a series of 10 events to celebrate their 10th anniversary, drawing attention to just these issues.

The discussion I attended on 18 August 2014 raised the question ‘what is the point of punishment if society won’t forgive?’ The conversation was chaired by criminologist and film-maker Roger Graef who was joined by Liz Dixon, from the probation service, and Shad Ali and Jacob Dunne, two participants of restorative justice conferences.

Shad’s decision to forgive his violent attacker was a difficult journey, not least because the criminal justice system he found himself in created many boundaries. It was forgiveness that gave Shad the control that can otherwise be taken away from victims in the aftermath of a crime. Driven by a sense of humanity, he is now in regular contact with the person who attacked him. He told the audience that he even plans to meet his former attacker at the prison gates when he is released.

Jacob told the other side of the story. He gave an emotional account of how he ended up imprisoned for two and a half years for manslaughter and said it was the forgiveness offered him by his victim’s parents that now affects his decisions for the future. Jacob left school with no qualifications so although he is now trying to study and gain some GCSEs it is really difficult when he also has to worry about finding somewhere to live, getting some social support and claiming some benefits. In some ways it would have been easier to just get a minimum wage job, but he has stayed motivated because his victim’s family encouraged him to keep going. They told him “we don’t want you to waste your life, we’ve already lost one.”

Their concern for his wellbeing and the support they are able to offer has helped him to focus on his future. Forgiveness has helped him reconnect with society: ‘My victim and my victim’s family are my purpose now.’

The evening was a powerful insight into the value of restorative programmes and raised questions of the place of forgiveness in supporting learners through the criminal justice system. Many people coming out of prison trying to start afresh either through work or further education face stigma and discrimination For Jacob to stay in education he needed the forgiveness of his victim’s family and wider community. If people are going to work hard on their rehabilitation, they need more than the support of education staff and probation, we all have a role and responsibility in forgiving them.

How can we demonstrate support and motivate learners? Perhaps, by providing hope and a promise that there is a welcome place in society for them after their punishment.

The next event is on the 15th September at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London.