Marina Cantacuzino: The long and winding road to forgiveness

Restorative justice turns the system on its head and gives everyone a voice

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When Margaret Mizen spoke last week of feeling no anger for her son's killer and pity for his family, she followed a growing and impressive line of bereaved mothers who have spoken in a spirit of understanding and compassion in the wake of their children's senseless murders – Dee Walker and Marie Fatayi-Williams to name but two.

And yet even though there is universal respect for these mothers' dignified response, public opinion is more polarised. The more usual response from someone who has lost a loved one is that of Helen Newlove, who in February this year spoke of bringing back the gallows at the trial of three youths for the murder of her husband Gary.

I have always been especially interested in those people – like Margaret Mizen, whose son Jimmy was stabbed to death in a south London baker's shop 10 days ago – who somehow go against the grain, and try to make meaning out of a meaningless atrocity by not talking of revenge or hatred.

It was for this reason that in 2004 I founded The Forgiveness Project, an organisation that examines and explores forgiveness and restorative justice through real people's narratives. When the organisation launched the exhibition The F Word: Images of Forgiveness, Esther Baker, who runs Synergy Theatre (an organisation which works through theatre with offenders and ex-offenders towards resettlement), was so moved by the stories that together we embarked on raising funds to get a play commissioned that looked at forgiveness in the aftermath of brutality.

The Long Road, by Shelagh Stephenson, which opened last night at London's Soho Theatre, is the result of a four-year process which involved talking to both victims and offenders and examining the process of restorative justice – the meeting of victim and offender where the central concern is not retribution or punishment but the redressing of balances through acknowledgement, apology and reparation.

The play is timely in that it sadly foreshadows Margaret Mizen's words. The mother in The Long Road, in an attempt to deal with the tragedy of her son's murder, tries to meet his killer, a young teenage girl. The play examines the effects that the mother's need to understand and ultimately to forgive has on the rest of the family.

I have come to believe passionately in restorative justice, having worked with offenders in several UK prisons and met a number of victims who have had face-to-face meetings with the person who has harmed them. In today's criminal justice setting, victims have very limited opportunity to say how they are affected by the crimes that have shaken and undermined their lives. They usually feel powerless watching lawyers and police plea-bargaining and trading information for reduced sentences. Restorative justice turns the system on its head, and gives everyone a voice, putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Take the case of Peter Woolf and Will Riley. Woolf, a former career criminal turned author, whose autobiography The Damage Done was published last week, speaks movingly about how he didn't understand that he had victims such as Riley – whose house he burgled – until a restorative justice conference brought the two men together. The meeting had such a profound impact on Woolf that he has not offended since. Equally, Riley was so impressed by the process of restoration he had undergone that he was inspired to form a group called Why Me?, an organisation calling for the right for all victims to take part in restorative justice.

I have worked with Peter Woolf in London prisons, and the power of his story surpasses any behaviour management intervention that I've seen or been involved in. For the most part, prison doesn't work because punishment – as necessary as it may be – is not usually effective in getting people to take responsibility for their behaviour. Hence the high numbers reoffending. For most offenders to take responsibility for their actions, they need to consider how their behaviour affected people and what might be done to repair the harm it caused. This is what restorative justice is all about.

The Long Road is a play about forgiveness – a word that everyone has an opinion about, which is what makes the play so effective and so provocative. For most people, forgiveness signifies something easy, glib and weak – but in my opinion that is entirely wrong. Forgiveness is difficult, painful, and costly – but also potentially transformative.

'The Long Road' is in repertory at the Soho Theatre, London W1 until 5 June

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