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Legislation, Penalties and Prisons: How Much Do They Promote Citizen Security (and How Much Do They Not)?
Jean Schmitz, Founder and Director, Latin American Institute of Restorative Practices

Posted 2012-08-03

Presented by Jean Schmitz in a plenary session on August 3, 2012, at the 15th IIRP World Conference, Building a Restorative Practices Learning Network, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, August 1-3, 2012

When I was invited to write this article, I decided to start by telling some stories taken from my personal and professional practice in Peru. It is my understanding that these short stories will be a good means to express and illustrate my feelings, opinions and ideas, based on actual experience, and thus be able to propose some alternatives for developing an effective, healthy and inclusive system of citizen security.

Scene 1: At the detention center for adolescent offenders in Cuzco

A few years ago, when I was visiting the detention center for adolescent offenders in Cuzco, my attention was caught by a boy I came across on the patio because he looked much more like a child than an adolescent. In fact, he was 12 years old and looked very fragile. His body was small and he had an empty look. I asked him how he was doing. In a small voice and with drooping shoulders he answered, “Fine, thank you.” I immediately asked him how long it had been since he’d seen his parents. He answered, “I don’t know, it’s been a long time.” This boy came from a distant location. When I looked into his eyes, I could not help thinking of my own children. Later I found out the reason for his detention: he had stolen food from a market. He had been detained for five months and had not received a sentence. How could I not feel upset and uneasy! It is difficult to understand such a thing. Although I did not have all the elements to assess the case and give a final opinion, I found it painful to know the situation of this young boy.

One cannot help wondering whether there was another way that the authorities could have handled this case. How many similar cases can be found in our youth detention centers? How many youth are locked up for a minor crime instead of receiving an alternative to detention or a referral1 linked to a support program as provided by the regulations? How many youngsters are not granted the opportunity to be defended and protected as required by law? How does this detention help the victim of the theft to have his own needs and interests satisfied?

Scene 2: At the young women’s detention center of Santa Margarita

Not so long ago I used to pay regular visits to the Santa Margarita Center, the only young women’s detention center in the country, located in the San Miguel district. At that time there were 42 inmates2 , a suitable number for an appropriate rehabilitation program conducted by competent and motivated professionals. The director, a social worker, was persuaded that it was always possible to find the potential and resources in each detainee to promote positive changes so that on their release they could establish a life plan for themselves.

I used to visit the center every Monday during the beauty parlor training program (hairdressing, manicure and pedicure), taught by a trainer that was very skilled at establishing communication with the detainees and motivating them. At the third visit, these young women were no longer embarrassed to practice manicuring my nails or styling my hair. I had achieved my goal of establishing sincere communication, building trust and promoting empathy. This was all I wanted. I did not care if my hair was not so well cut.

I will never forget M.J. who told me her personal story during my numerous visits. She told me that most of the professionals at the center had treated her very well during the two years and ten months of detention, showing control and respect, discipline and support, authority and affection. She told me that she had had the opportunity to reflect and felt repentance and pain. She felt that she had learned a lot and did not want to be the same person she had been before. She had already traced a life plan for herself: to work at a beauty parlor. I was persuaded of her sincerity, her deep reflection and of the fact that she had assumed responsibility. After several visits I had no doubt.

However, as her release date approached, M.J. found herself more and more trapped between two contradicting emotions. On the one hand she had feelings of happiness and enjoyment at the prospect of regaining freedom, of walking away from the prison bars and—God willing, as she used to say—of being able to work at a beauty parlor and start a family. On the other hand, she felt overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, fear, even panic and rage at the possibility of moving into uncertainty, emptiness, the unknown, the risk of relapsing, the fear of coming across the victims of her offenses, the members of her dysfunctional family or any of her “friends” who were still involved in offending and were waiting for her.

M.J. wanted to open the door immediately, but she was afraid of walking out. She did not know where to go or with whom. Every Monday I could see her smile turn into tears and then the tears turn into a smile again. She was at a loss and had no confidence.

How many girls like her are prepared and sincerely willing to change and become positive, collaborative and productive members of society but lack support at the crucial time of starting a new life? How many young women are willing to cross over the bars and be productive members of the community? What do the society and the state do to acknowledge them as persons, as rehabilitated citizens instead of labeling them as former detainees? How would the victims of M.J.’s past offending react on learning of her release?

Scene 3: At a police station of the national police forces in El Agustino

Five years ago, at the time of starting a pilot project on the application of restorative juvenile justice in the district of El Agustino, in Lima, of which I was in charge, I witnessed a situation that gave me a mixture of anger, confusion, empathy and sadness. I only witnessed it, observing very attentively from beginning to end, without participating. I was astounded at the scene. I was not the only witness; there were several people at the police station, both men and women, but most of them appeared detached, as if they were saying, “It is none of my business, I will not meddle with this.”

A woman had been violently assaulted by three youngsters who ripped away her bag with her personal documents, mobile phone and money. The incident had just occurred, in the daylight, very close to the police station. The woman was upset, and she came into the police station and asked the policemen for help in chasing the burglars and recovering her belongings. But they paid no attention to her and she continued to shout until a policeman approached her rebuking, “Why are you shouting like this? It is no use to scream. Just wait, and you will be taken care of at some point.”

The victim, quite confused, went on with her complaints, insisting on the urgency. Then, in amazement, she received an even sharper reply, “Wait for your turn, like all the rest, you are not the only one here, or go out to calm down.” At this response made in an authoritarian tone, the woman got very upset and angry, almost outraged, and verbally attacked the policeman who was not assisting her as she expected.

Then the woman looked around seeking support from the other persons there, explaining what had happened to her in a loud and faltering voice, imploring them for assistance. After remaining silent for a few seconds, she left the police station in tears, complaining in a broken voice that no one was interested in the assaults and delinquency in the streets. She even accused the policemen of being part of the gang that attacked her.

Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated case. On the contrary, it is very common. The victim was not treated in a fair, respectful and compassionate manner. This does not mean that policemen should have neglected the work they were doing, but at least one of them could have satisfied, even to a minimum extent, the expectations of the victim, the same as when an emergency arises in a medical center. Could you imagine a physician telling a patient who is bleeding to death to wait for his turn?

Would it have been so difficult for one of the policemen—or the persons who were there, myself included—to try and soothe her, listen to her, ask her to sit down and give her a glass of water, or just to hold her hand and pat her shoulder by way of comfort? That, by itself, would have changed the situation. The woman would have moved from rage to distress, gradually recovering from the shock. But the insensitivity and the detachment of the policeman, and of those of us who were present there, prevailed, victimizing her for the second time.

There is no possible justice if we do not take into consideration the needs and interests of the victims, if those who have suffered damage have no opportunity to have the damage repaired. It is not fair to assign the victim to a mere passive and bureaucratic role as claimant or witness, to tell her to queue, without the chance to have her interests and needs taken into consideration.

Why are victims poorly served and re-victimized by the justice system? Why does the justice system focus exclusively on penalizing the offender and in this way “cause pain” to the victim? What interest and rights are given to the victims of an offense after the incident takes place?

Scene 4: Visit to Lurigancho Prison for adults

As part of my work with young people in conflict with the law and the problem of juvenile gangs, I visited the cell block holding young prisoners between 18 and 24 years old in Lurigancho Prison. With help from their representatives and officials from the National Penal Institute (INPE), I met them in the exercise yard.

There were about 600 people. After introducing myself, I asked them how many of them had been in a juvenile detention center at least once before being sent to Lurigancho. I was surprised to see a forest of hands raised before me: young people proudly showing off their tattoos and scars like medals awarded for a life of crime. These were clearly not beginners, but a crowd of young people inoculated by violence and recidivism.

I then went to talk to a few of them who had been sent to “Maranguita,” and asked them why this experience had not “rehabilitated or re-introduced them into society” and why they continued with a life of crime. The response was as expected. They told me: “There’s no room for rehabilitation here, more like disintegration”; “There’s no place for education, you just get worse”; “You can’t reflect, just survive”; “Nobody listens to you, you just have confrontations”; “You have no opportunities, you’re just excluded”; etc.

Prisons today make “professional criminals” of their inmates rather than rehabilitate them. Of all the inmates, how many could have been given some other punishment than a custodial sentence? Would that not have stopped providing new recruits for crime from the prisons? What do the victims think about criminals being released after completing their sentences and “rejoining” the community they come from?

Scene 5: Police support officers in Barranco

In 2003, when I was living in the district of Barranco, the mayor established citizen security as one of his priorities. So one of his first acts was to increase the number of police support officers3 to cover the whole of the district, day and night, and thus guarantee the safety of its residents.

In a short time the new officers were trained and equipped, with some of them given a striking variety of protective rubber gear that made them look like the “ninja turtles”: enormous black helmets; shoulder, back, elbow and knee protectors; stout boots and, of course, a truncheon and radio. With his officers in this fancy dress, the mayor was certain that they would control crime and improve neighborhood security. I assume that most of the residents agreed with the mayor and backed his initiative.

Most of the times that I was in the municipal park or one of the nearby streets, I would come across one or two police support officers with huge ferocious dogs, but I never dared to ask them anything—not even for the time, directions or even to say hello. On the contrary, I felt fearful and unsafe and I gave them a wide berth. I could see that just about all my neighbors felt the same way, and I suspect that even those who supported the new municipal police force did, too. Ironically, these officers are supposed to create a feeling of security and tranquility among residents.

I would have preferred more friendly officers in my neighborhood, that is, less heavily armed, more simply dressed and, above all, adopting a more supportive, educational and advisory role. I would have liked to see them work proactively, guiding people with respect but without neglecting control and authority. Although they were not enemies, neither were they friends, and I preferred to avoid them whenever I could.

Where is the boundary between promoting citizen security and social co-existence? Do these armed men with large dogs really make us feel good and at the same time safe? Do we not, on the contrary, need more educators and community promoters in our neighborhoods so that all of us, children and adults, men and women, feel that we have genuine support, help and guidance?

Scene 6: In the sub-commission reviewing the Code of Children and Adolescents

In 2004 I was a member of a working group consisting of lawyers, magistrates, psychologists, social workers and other professionals that had been created to improve volume IV of the Code of Children and Adolescents, concerning adolescents in conflict with the criminal law. Our main idea was to propose reforms to make the Code a guarantor (of due process) as well as a restorative approach (responsibility, custodial sentences as the last resort, reparation of damage to victims).

Some years later, I was appointed member of a sub-commission created by the Peruvian Congress to review the Code. I felt then that our initial project had made a lot of progress and would soon achieve its aims. On the other hand, I could not help being anxious during the long and complicated process, as I feared that while we were working, some act of violence would occur involving adolescents. A single case of this type making the headlines could destroy everything we had worked to do.

Some progress was achieved during the process. The main one was certainly to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 12 to 14, when in other Latin American countries the trend was to stiffen penalties for adolescents breaking the criminal law (Chile, for example, reduced the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14).

How can a law such as the Code of Children and Adolescents be “improved” when it already contained positive aspects that unfortunately are very seldom applied (for example diversion, envisaged in Article 204)? What is the point of enacting a law if its executive regulations are never approved and, therefore, it cannot be enforced?

These six examples from real life enable me to reflect on the matter I was asked to address. This is what I can say and share, not as an expert because I do not consider myself to be one, but as a human being committed to and profoundly interested in improving conditions in our communities.

The legislation

As for the laws on citizen security, my opinion is that we need to be able to distinguish between the laws having a populist purpose from the laws aimed at a public-policy purpose.

The former type of bills—the populist ones—spring up abruptly, following an event that has been in the headlines or a serious crime that has struck the citizens, who in turn react, moved by emotions. They erupt suddenly, without careful elaboration or reflection, as an impulsive reaction that in medical terms could be defined as inflammatory. The death penalty, as an allegedly dissuasive instrument, is probably the most commonly resorted to example of populist promises, even when it would be very difficult to pass such a law due to the constitutional prohibition and the human rights treaties ratified by the Peruvian state. Notwithstanding this, how many politicians go back repeatedly to promote it and announce it as a feasible and imminent measure every time a horrible crime strikes the society, such as a rape or kidnapping leading to death?

In other cases, congressmen react with the proposal of amending an existing law, making it harsher, increasing the penalties, thus adding a further layer of pain to the sanction, without this representing a solution to the needs of the victims and offering no reparation. In reality, what those who promote punitive legislations seek is nothing but personal recognition, more popularity and footage in the media. Unfortunately, these laws are passed more rapidly when the situation that gave rise to the project, such as a kidnapping, affects a person who has power or standing and not a common citizen. These are the kind of laws that, following the medical terminology, I describe as rash.

Numerous studies prove4 that the death penalty has never reduced criminality rates anywhere in the world. In the jurisdictions where the death penalty is applied, criminals do not fear killing the victim out of the risk of being identified and sentenced.

The problem is that criminal legislation does not always reflect a clear idea of criminal policy inspired by real life. Peruvian criminal legislation has evolved over almost a century from legislation taken, often slavishly, from foreign models, as well as improvised legislation arising from crises or scandals that have caused a public outcry.

Thus we have oscillated between “hard line” criminal policies and brief periods of liberalism. But a clearly thought-out policy to address the phenomenon of crime, a national criminal policy expressed as a coherent system of rules and action: we have never had such a thing in Peru. As in other fields of national life, criminal legislation has seen, with depressing frequency, improvisation and changes driven by public and political opinion. All of this translates into a failure to address the underlying problems while criminal law is often manipulated to patch holes in the system.

Fortunately, within all this confusion, some interesting laws, promoted by civil society, jurists and even enlightened politicians—who do exist—have been proposed. These bills have been the result of the aspiration and public-policy criteria to promote social co-existence, the culture of peace and citizen security. They promote measures such as reconciliation, justice-of-the-peace experts in police matters, or community judges of the peace in remote communities to promote sincere and long-lasting repentance in the offender.

Building on the foundations of this type of regulation, as well as on the progressive principles of the Constitution and on international treaties is key to developing a legal system that may genuinely serve the interests of society at large.

The penalties

It should be noted that the word penalty5 originates in the Latin term poena that has a connotation of pain and suffering caused by a punishment. The belief that penalties lead to changing behavior is the basis for discipline-oriented policies all over the world. But this belief is not supported by the evidence. Punishment only has a superficial effect, most particularly when those that infringe the law are at reach of those who have authority.

The theory of pain seeks to produce a series of effects in the members of society, effects that are allegedly positive. For this reason, penalties seek two basic effects: 1) to induce prevention/ deterrence in the members of society; 2) to induce special prevention/deterrence in subjects that have been given a penalty.

Penalty, in most societies, especially deprivation of liberty, seeks a retributive effect, similar to the notion of revenge or retaliation, and not the rehabilitation and reincorporation of the convict into the community he or she comes from and belongs to. On the other hand, to what extent are other fundamental elements taken into consideration, such as the three Rs?: Acceptance of Responsibility by the offender, Repair for the victim and Rehabilitation of the criminal. Even less do we see a minimum of effort put into Re-establishing the human Relationships destroyed by crime; on the contrary, the fragile community links of parties to conflicts are destroyed further.

As an illustration of the above, I will quote an extreme example, but one which can be seen in any society. I lived for eight months in Sudan, an African country governed by Islamic sharia6, which is a detailed code of conduct that includes, in addition to religious practices, moral and practical criteria, what is permitted or prohibited and rules defining the good from the bad. For this reason, some of the legal precepts of sharia include stoning for adulterers (although the Koran specifies whipping as the punishment) and cutting the hands off thieves.

Taking this latter, crude example: Will amputating the hand of a thief automatically make him into a good person, or simply a crippled thief? It is most likely that amputation seeks to mark and stigmatize him brutally and exclude him from his own community, as well as inflicting pain. Some who are extreme enthusiasts of retribution, and cynics at the same time, will comment that at least by having only one hand, the thief will be unable to steal so easily; I have heard this sentiment in Lima.

Although the theoretical grounds of justice is to contribute to social peace, we must unfortunately admit that most societies have taken the option of making it a synonym for revenge and long-lasting suffering. In the United States, crime victims or crime victims’ relatives are allowed the alleged satisfaction of witnessing the execution of the criminal. What is this but understanding the penalty as retributive revenge? An intuitive analysis may lead us to the conclusion that one evil added to another evil cannot but result in a greater evil. The ideal model would be that any person that causes an evil, such as pain or suffering, should make up for it by doing double or triple good to the society and in this way cancel his or her debt. Serious or very serious crimes are very complex and difficult to repair, but in some cases it is feasible.

We can also assume that institutionalization of adolescents in closed facilities may be considered by the judge to be a protective and paternalistic rather than punitive or retributive measure. This happens frequently when a judge handles minors in conflict with the law who lead a very unrewarding life in the streets or are members of an extremely dysfunctional family that negatively affects their development. In such cases, many judges consider that depriving adolescents of their liberty may be favorable in that they will have access to basic services such as food, sleeping facilities, obligatory schooling and a team of people to control them, be it guardians or professionals. In general, these judges do not really know and are not aware of how the prison system works.

One law that caught my attention is the recent Peruvian antibullying legislation (law 29719), the declared aim of which is to “diagnose, prevent, avoid and punish violence in schools.” As a measure to prevent bullying among schoolchildren, all schools must now have at least one psychologist. So says the parliamentarian sponsoring the act. Nevertheless, this is clearly incompatible with reality as schools greatly outnumber qualified psychologists, many of whom are already employed. Of those who are not, few have experience working with children, adolescents and young people at all, much less in school. Neither do the figures equate with the Ministry of Education’s budget. There is a great difference between passing a law and implementing it in the context of real life. Each law should be based on real life so as to not produce frustration nor worsen the original problems.

There is an urgent need for reformulating our notion of penalties and defining what we expect to achieve from them. If the only purpose we seek is to give back to the person who has violated the law a strong dose of evil, then probably there are no major changes to be made. However, those who take this position should reflect on the fact that, with penalties applied in the way we all know, our prisons have become schools of crime. This is a road that reproduces indefinitely the dialectic of delinquency and penal repression in a constant feedback loop.

If, on the other hand, we understand that penalties should comprise the possibility of rehabilitation of the person who violated the law, we should radically change the concept, content and forms of application of such penalties. The basic orientation to take should be reducing the content of inflicted pain to the minimum and promoting a new educational and conciliation approach.

The prisons

In any context, deprivation of liberty is the most difficult and painful sanction criminals can receive, especially when they are assigned to overpopulated and violent detention centers, having a terrible track record and reputation, such as the Lurigancho prison in Peru. Every country has a “prestige” prison.

In a way we are ashamed of these prisons; then, with the purpose of soothing uneasy consciences, we give in to the temptation of making up new names for detention centers to make them more acceptable to the public. Thus, the well-known juvenile detention center of “Maranguita” in Peru bears the official name of “Lima Juvenile Diagnosis and Rehabilitation Center.” This name does not change in any way the way the institution operates. This juvenile prison, because this is what it is about, had 350 male adolescent inmates in 2003. At present it accommodates approximately 1,000 adolescents, without having significantly added human, technical or financial resources.

By 2003, both the Ombudsman and the Department of Juvenile Offenders Centers of the Judiciary had produced many reports on the serious problems encountered in Maranguita: overcrowding, lack of qualified personnel, lack of training, the large number of adolescents incarcerated for long periods (more than three months) without being sentenced. Imagine what the situation is like today: explosive, without a doubt. The riots in Maranguita in November 2011 are a clear indication of what is happening and what is to come if this deterioration is allowed to continue.

In many countries, the mere deprivation of liberty has not only proven inefficient in the struggle against the growth of delinquency, but to the contrary, if we consider the rates of relapse, it seems to have promoted it. The penalty of deprivation of liberty does not conclude when the convict leaves the prison, because the stigma and social label of “having been in prison” accompanies the ex-convict throughout his life, like a visible stamp that will prevent him or her from restarting a productive social, work and even family life.

In the prevailing conditions in the majority of prisons, a custodial sentence will only achieve one of its functions: that of keeping criminals out of circulation for a given period of time. But at times it does not even achieve this, as can be seen from the criminal gangs operating within the prisons thanks to the undeniable complicity on the part of the prison authorities and police. In contrast the cost has nothing to do with the true needs of the victims (individuals and society).

A few years ago, criminologists embraced the concept of treatment7 instead of rehabilitation or reinsertion. They claimed that prison could be a place of personal reflection and recovery, even of forgiveness, reparation and reestablishment of damaged relationships. Nevertheless, some recognize that this is only feasible under certain conditions: a manageable number of inmates distributed according to precise criteria (first timers separated from recidivists, grouped according to the type of offense, grouped by age, drug users identified, etc.)

Others, on the other hand, think that classification of prison inmates should be based on individual longitudinal studies carried out by a multidisciplinary team. In other words, the idea is to carry out an integral diagnosis of the inmates not just when they are imprisoned but on a regular basis, throughout their detention until the day they are released.

Mexican criminologist Hilda Marchiori says that “the purpose of treatment is that the criminal modifies his aggressive antisocial behavior, becomes aware of this pathological behavior towards others and towards himself, which he has used in his criminal conduct”.8 Furthermore, according to Mexican judge Javier García Ramírez in his book “La prisión los agrupa” (“Prison brings them together”), the term “treatment” should include all available collective resources that can be brought to bear on the inmate. Being critical and objective, we must recognize that this almost never happens, which means that treatment is probably inaccessible in most cases.

What is very surprising is that, although most citizens, including politicians, journalists, and citizens at large and victims in particular, are well aware that prisons are not a place where a resocialization program may be conducted and that they are overcrowded schools of crime, they continue to advocate imprisonment, even for minor cases, and exert great pressure on magistrates.

Many researchers have studied the sub-culture of prisons, the psychosis of incarceration, and described it in great detail9 as well as the sexual conduct that takes place in closed institutions and the destructive influence on the conduct of inmates. In such surroundings rehabilitation during imprisonment seems to be a highly complex task—if not improbable. What Peruvian prison prepares inmates for an inclusive, safe and healthy return to society?10 None, obviously.

John Braithwaite, a distinguished Australian criminologist, insists on the importance of being able to “separate the deed from the doer.” In other words, he claims that we need to reject all conducts and behaviors that are contrary to law, but not reject the person.

Societies—schools in particular—have come to the conclusion that if those who behave wrongly or commit crimes are forced to undergo punishments involving suffering, it will be less likely for them to repeat wrongdoing. If this held true, then the responsible work of school discipline or the work of the judges in penal courts would be very easy. Upon every deed in violation of the rules, the offender would suffer a certain amount of discomfort. If this punishment could not change the behavior of the offender, then the teacher or the judge would simply increase the level of suffering until the inappropriate behavior is discontinued11.

Educational discipline and criminal justice practices are based on punishment to change behaviors. However, the constant increase in the number of persons deprived of their liberty and students expelled from schools render this approach questionable.

We must remember that the reason for laws, rules and principles is to protect people from damage and to ensure that human development takes place in a functional, healthy and safe environment. Instead of a bureaucratic perspective that simply hands out punishment for violations of the code of conduct, we should focus on the real needs of human beings. We have to repair the damage to interpersonal relationships and restore a sense of security and peace in the community.

John Braithwaite also raised a surprising question coming from a criminologist. Instead of raising the traditional question in criminology: Why do people commit a crime? He asked: Why do most people do the right thing most of the time? We could ask the same question about our children or students: Why do most of them behave properly in the street, at home or at school most of the time? Simply because they want the people they are related to to think that they are good people.

Braithwaite says that restorative processes reinforce appropriate conduct by depending on this critical dynamic—our desire to maintain or restore good feelings among people with whom we have a connection. A lecture from a judge is not effective because the offender has no connection with that person, but a mother’s tears or those of his wife or daughter have a more powerful influence because the offender has a long-standing and concrete relationship with them.

Specifically, prison should be used as a last resort in the most serious cases. The challenge of today is to explore alternatives to depriving someone of his liberty. The same applies to mental hospitals; I dream that at some time in a future that still appears somewhat distant, prison is no longer used as the standard penalty for common crime and has been largely replaced by community treatment.

Citizen security

For the last few years the term citizen safety has been the focus of debate on initiatives against violence and delinquency in Latin America. This notion is specifically oriented to the protection of citizens and for this reason it differs from the concept of national security that dominated the public discourse in previous decades, which aimed principally at the protection and defense of a state that, quite often, was not even democratic.

There is not a single definition or interpretation of the concept of citizen security; on the contrary, there are diverse interpretations whose content varies a great deal, depending on who applies it and when. There is no consensus on the definition of this notion; therefore, its content may range from being very precise and restricted to being very ambiguous and broad. It may contain preventive and proactive as well as responsive and reactive elements.

A typical definition is that of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2006) that defines citizen security as “the personal, objective and subjective condition of being free from violence or from the threat of intentional violence or dispossession by others.”

In general, to the effects of the law, citizen security is understood as the comprehensive action of the state, with the cooperation of citizens, devoted to guarantee social coexistence, eradication of violence and the pacific use of services, roads and public spaces, as well as the prevention of crime and misdemeanors.

However, my personal experience in visiting most Latin American countries gives me grounds to affirm that government policies on citizen security generally consist of creating and applying repressive, oppressive and restrictive policies: more protection systems, more surveillance, more cameras, more prisons, more restrictions to citizens, more patrolling and greater penalties, instead of providing better responses to the interests and needs of citizens, promoting a culture of peace based on an inclusive and pacific coexistence.12

Furthermore, public safety appears to mean different things to different types of people. On the one hand, there is a population of citizens who “merit protection”; on the other, social groups from which these citizens “have to be protected.” Depending on the country, groups defined as dangerous to the community may be youngsters from marginal areas, drug users, ethnic groups or immigrants, street children and the well-known and feared gangs or ‘maras.’

The size of these sectors stigmatized as dangerous depends on whether society is more or less repressive and on who is in charge of public-safety policy. A lower tendency toward repression equates with greater respect for social groups and the individualization of vigilance over those responsible for criminal acts. Certain public-safety policies harbor “hard line” tendencies that can be equated with those that inspired the abominable crimes committed in the name of old national security policies.

A healthy policy of citizen security serves the purpose of social coexistence and development of a culture of peace. Putting these values at the mercy of the need for security is a serious error that feeds the vicious circle of violence.

Restorative practices as an alternative

Citizens cannot coexist peacefully if the society in which they live does not establish principles and values, set rules and limitations, create laws and apply measures to those that do not abide by them. Human relations are not just beneficial and suitable to guarantee harmonious personal, family and social development but can also be painful, belligerent, competitive and utterly negative. To a greater or lesser degree, violence has been present at all times and in all societies.

Even if I wished that none existed, I do not promote closing prisons, but as the UN proposes, I fully agree that the penalty of deprivation of liberty on the grounds of violating criminal law should always be considered as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. This penalty should only be applied to persons that do not qualify for an alternative measure to imprisonment, that is, strictly for very serious cases. Rather I insist that justice operators and interdisciplinary teams should do appropriate screening to avoid the imprisonment of individuals that could be treated in an open system, with effective professional support.

Let us start with the youngsters! Adolescents who infringe the law need us to do something for them, right now, to prevent them from taking the road of crime into their adult age. Let us reformulate the content of measures, giving priority to their educational aspect and keeping deprivation of liberty for really serious cases.

Let us act preventively! How? By creating networks, strengthening the connections of community life, equipping community leaders with new skills to face situations of tension and conflict that lead to juvenile crime. Let us act before the children that are on the verge of becoming adolescents get trapped in the logic of violence with no return.

Among adults, let us start with the simplest cases. Let us do everything that is within our reach to avoid sending more people to that violence machine and life destroyer that is the prison system.

Restorative practices is a new field of study that enables people to renew and build connections within the community in a world that is ever more fragmented and problematic. The emerging field of restorative practices brings together theory, research and praxis in apparently very different fields such as education, counseling, criminal justice, social work, organizational administration and others.

The notion of restorative practices finds its roots in restorative justice: a new way of approaching criminal justice that is focused on renewing and building connections within the community in an increasingly disconnected and complicated world, as well as repairing the damage done to persons and human and social relations instead of exclusively focusing on punishment.

At present, whilst on this subject, individuals and organizations in many countries are developing innovative methodologies and models and carrying out empirical research as an alternative to the clear deficiencies of criminal justice. This is a movement that includes initiatives from civil society and progressive sectors of the authorities.

There are two effective examples of such developments. In the field of social work, family group conferencing, or family group decision making, empowers families to meet privately, without the presence of professionals in the meeting room, to prepare a plan for the protection of the children with families that exhibit the greatest degree of violence and negligence (American Human Association, 2003).

In the criminal justice system, restorative circles and restorative conferencing allow victims, offenders and members of their families and friends to meet in order to explore how everyone has been affected by crime and, whenever possible, to decide how to repair the damage and satisfy their own needs (McCold, 2003)13. In education, circles and groups provide opportunities for students to share their feelings, build relations, solve problems and, when there is a conflict, play a role in addressing wrongdoing so that things go well (Riestenberg, 2002).

The social discipline window (see Figure 1) is a very useful conceptual framework with wide applications in many concepts. It describes four basic approaches for maintaining social standards and limits of conduct. The four are represented as different combinations of strict or lax control, high and low support. The restorative approach combines strict control with a high level of support and is characterized by doing things with people as opposed to doing things for people or to people.

Figure 1. Social Discipline Window

Figure 1. Social Discipline Window

Restorative practices are not limited to formal processes such as restorative conferencing and family group decision-making; they also cover informal to formal situations. On the spectrum of restorative practices, informal practices include affective statements that communicate a person’s feelings, and restorative questions, that enable people to reflect upon how their conduct has affected other people.

Small impromptu conferences, groups and circles are somewhat more structured, but do not require the preparation necessary for a formal restorative conference. Moving across the spectrum, as restorative practices become more formal and involve more people, they require more planning and are more structured and complete. Despite the fact that a formal restorative process may have a dramatic impact, informal practices have an accumulative effect because they are part of daily life.

What would happen if all those working with youngsters and their families adopted a common strategy to address youth crime, disruptive behaviors in the classrooms and the rates of school attrition, suspension and expelling?

Restorative practices are a strategy of this kind. The underlying premise, backed by impressive results in many contexts around the world, is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive and have greater probabilities of making positive changes when those that are in authoritarian position do things with them, rather than doing to them or for them. Restorative practices provide a means to manage relations and establish connections and social responsibility, and at the same time provide common ground to repair damage when relations are broken.

Very positive results have been achieved. In 2008, the city of Hull, an economically deprived city in England with a quarter of a million inhabitants that the British Broadcasting Corporation named “the worst place to live in the United Kingdom”, decided to train professionals14 involved in working with youngsters and their families in the use of restorative practices, including social services, the police forces, the schools and other local organizations. Even though the program is ongoing, Hull has had remarkable results in a variety of social indicators: a reduction in the number of school suspensions, expulsions and poor school behavior, reduction of absenteeism of students and teachers, improvement in the scores obtained in school examinations, and a significant reduction in the number of crimes committed.

The Latin American Institute for Restorative Practices (Instituto Latino Americano de Prácticas Restaurativas—ILAPR), associated with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), a graduate school and training and consulting organization based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, expects to be able to replicate the successful Hull project in the city of Lima, starting in a traditional and heavily populated zone: Barrios Altos.

Although the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) has almost two decades of experience helping others to implement restorative practices, an initiative of this type should actively involve local stakeholders. For this reason, in the initiative of turning Barrios Altos into a restorative area, the Latin American Institute for Restorative Practices (ILAPR) and the Metropolitan Municipality of Lima (MML), in collaboration with local community organizations, are planning to train children and family service agencies, the police, the churches, the school, the parents and all those who work with youth and their families in this neighborhood.

It is expected that a planning team will be created for the Barrios Altos Restorative Zone, to include representatives from the education services, the police, children and families, the city authorities and neighborhoods. The purpose of this first meeting will be to make progress toward a shared commitment to this vision and to define the steps required for financing and implementing it.

In collaboration with the Restorative Zone Planning Team, ILAPR and MML, a coordinated strategic plan will be drawn up for training, implementation and evaluation over a period of three years. The purpose is that a substantial number of people within each group of interested parties receive up to five days of training in restorative practices during this period. The ILAPR will provide intensive support and implementation for all participating agencies and stakeholders.

The approach of the Restorative Area is unique. Restorative practices are based in the belief that we already have compassionate and competent professionals, adult residents and community leaders in Barrios Altos who will benefit by adopting a standardized and consistent approach that can improve the performance and the behavior of young people in their homes, in the street, in the school and in the city.

In this way we can develop a prevention strategy of juvenile crime, strengthening the community, supporting social cohesion, empowering it, and equipping it with skills to face situations of conflict. The community network thus created will be the best buffer to counteract difficulties that push the young to take the road of violence.

Endnotes

  1. Referral orders grant the prosecutor the power of avoiding the criminal process and opting for a responsible social response with effective follow-up.

  2. As of February 2012, the center had around 55 female inmates.

  3. Police support, as a municipal organization created to help in matters of public safety, has an important role in the triangle of police, municipal government and organized neighborhoods in preventing crime.

  4. Researchers at Northwestern University, Radelet and Lacock, have recently published a study on the impact of the death penalty as a dissuasive element in the commission of crimes and reached the following conclusion: “Criminologists generally agree that the death penalty has no further dissuasive effect over long prison sentences.” The complete article can be found at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/files/DeterrenceStudy2009.pdf

  5. The penalty is defined as a sanction that removes or restricts personal liberties contemplated in the law and imposed by the judicature by means of due process upon the individual responsible for committing a crime (Source: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pena).

  6. Sharia means literally “the road to the spring.” It denotes an Islamic way of living more than a system of criminal justice. Sharia is a religious code for life, but more in the style of a code of laws, codifying conduct, governing many aspects of daily life—including politics, economics, finance, business, contracts, social affairs, etc. The majority of Muslim countries have adopted it to a greater or lesser extent, as a question of personal conscience. It may also be formally adopted by certain states, and it may be upheld by the courts.

  7. Treatment implies a change in the internal values of the subject and, consequently, a change in external conduct.

  8. Marchiori, Hilda, El estudio del delincuente, México, Porrúa, 1982, p. 132.

  9. Mental problems that appear as a result of incarceration in normal prisoners; confusion or depression.

  10. Article 66, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners: http://www.sdh.gba.gov.ar/comunicacion/normativainternacional/admjusticia/reglasminimasparatratamientode_reclusos.pdf

  11. The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel and Ted Wachtel and Bob Costello (see http://www.iirp.edu/store).

  12. Jean Schmitz, Injusticia y Sociedad. Justicia para Crecer, n. 14 (www.justiciaparacrecer.org).

  13. See Chronicle, January 2012—Ed.

  14. To date, 7,000 professionals have been trained in restorative practices in the city of Hull, UK.