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Do We Want Change, or are We Just about Revenge?: Thinking differently about violent offenders

Opinion article written by Aaron Hendry

“How about introducing the death sentence to rid us of this bad energy if rehabilitation doesn’t work. Why are we wasting resources on this sort of person. Seems to me like people would wake up quick and get inline and be decent people if this was the outcome.”

The comment above was one I came across on a meme created by New Conservatives about a man who had committed a violent crime. The post in question was designed to illicit outrage. And that is exactly what it did.

This was only one of hundreds of comments just like it. Some called him an animal, others for his family to be sterilized, still others demanded his death.

Reading the thread left little doubt in my mind… these people were not seeking Justice, what they were demanding was revenge.

And on one hand I sympathise with them.

I do not believe that everyone is neccesarily to blame for their own ignorance, a person cannot be held accountable for what they do not know. And if I were to be completely honest I would have to admit that I once shared the sentiment that drives their rage.

I too once bemoaned the “soft liberal judges” who did not have the backbone to adequately punish criminals. I too once demanded harsher penalties, believing that the harsher the penalty, the less likely a person would choose to offend.

I too was once ignorant. Trapped in my own world view, blinded by my own experience of the world, a world untouched by the suffering and trauma which too often sets a person upon the path towards violent offending.

Almost 10 years as a Youth Development Worker has shown me how wrong I was.

I have served young men who have brutally beaten other men, people who have abused and physically assaulted their partners, rangatahi who some would class in the “waste of space” category.

Yet, as horrendous as these peoples crimes may be, once you hear their stories, you can’t help but recognize their humanity.

And each one of them has a story that would make your heart break.

A story of a twelve year old boy beaten by his older brother while his parents watched, why you might ask? For no other reason but that he had presumed to be excited about his progress at school.

A story of a little teenage girl who had been torn from her whanau as a baby. Bouncing in and out of foster care until she had no where left to go but the street. She learn’t to use violence to survive. Hurt others, or get hurt yourself. That was how her world worked.

A story of a lad who grew up in a family where violence was just a normal part of life. He watched his Dad beat his mum, and took more than a few hidings himself. Until one day he grew big enough to put his Dad in his place. On that day he learn’t that the key to survival was in his size. Be bigger than the other guy, and he won’t mess with you.

A story of a young man who was orphaned as a teen, rejected by his extended whanau he was forced to live on the streets of Auckland. Drugs, and crime become his only means of survival.

I could tell you story after story of neglect, abuse, and rejection. Stories of hurt and broken people, damaged by the world we have created that, and in turn damaging others.

I struggle to find the words to help you see them. To see past the anger, the brutality, the dehumanized image you may hold, to actually see them.

Not a sullen teenager, or a notorious gangster, but a fellow human being, broken, crying out for help, hopeless and in pain.

Yet, even as I write I hear the responses, “but they are monsters and criminals, they do not deserve our compassion, they deserve to be punished and locked away!”

Some, will even call for their death.

Yet, even if you cannot find in yourself the humanity to recognize theirs, I would ask you this question.

Would you like to prevent violent crime? Or are you content merely to punish those who perpetuate it?

Because, here is the reality, the punitive-revenge-based injustice system we currently have, does not prevent violent crime. It is designed simply to punish those who commit it.

And the irony is that by ignoring an individual’s past, and by denying the validity of true restorative justice, we do not make our communities safer. We simply imprison broken, hurting people for a time, before releasing them once again out into our communities.

If we wish to end violent crime, we need to stop seeing it as an individual problem caused by an individual’s horrific choice.

We must look first at the corruption within our society which has dehumanized and degraded people to the point where they are able to do unspeakable things to their fellow human beings.

We must examine the poverty which infects our nation, the horrific number of child abuses which rise year after year, the racism and discrimination that affects our people more than we care to admit.

By addressing these issues (and others such as homelessness, mental illness and colonization) we will go a long way to preventing damaging people to a point where they might find themselves capable of committing such horrendous crimes.

And when people do commit such crimes, it is by enacting a process of restorative justice that we are able to begin the work of reconciliation and healing which will allow both the criminal and the victim to be freed and restored back into our community.

Now at this point, there will be those who will be asking, “why are you denying their individual responsibility? You’re letting them off the hook!”

Let me make myself clear. I am not saying that people are completely freed from individual responsibility. What I am saying is that a person’s individual responsibility, can only truly be understood when placed within the context of our collective responsibility.

And as a collective we have failed.

We have failed to create a society which produces human flourishing.

And it is our failure which has lead to the countless damaged souls which currently fill our prisons.

These issues are big, theres no doubt about it. And I get that it might sometimes feel overwhelming, like it’s impossible to affect change.

But, you can do something about it.

On a micro level, you can get involved in peoples lives, you can seek out those on the margins of our society and provide them with care and support. You can get involved in the lives of others.

And on the macro level?

Your politics matter. You can support policies that contribute to a more just and equitable society.

You can let your representatives know that you support restorative justice, and demand reform in the current injustice system.

The government will not make the reforms needed within our society until their is the political will to do so.

That starts with you.

Your vote counts, your voice counts, what you do… counts.

Yet, the question remains…

Do you care enough to get involved?

Or are you content with the status quo?


This article has been republished with permission from the author. To read the original article or more from Aaron Hendry, click here:



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