Debra Allcock Tyler: The crucial, challenging work of criminal justice charities

Organisations that work with people who have caused harm to others remind us that this sector rarely gives up on anyone

A few years ago a friend and I were having a heated debate about the death penalty – he in favour, me against.

He argued that if someone murdered my mum I would not be okay with them just going to jail for a few years. He was absolutely right! I’d want to kill the murderer myself, making sure they suffered horribly in the process.  

And that was the core of my argument – that I wouldn’t be interested in justice, I would want revenge. 

Thoughts of revenge towards those who have harmed us or others is normal, human, even irresistible.

Harms should not emphatically not go unacknowledged or unpunished. Reparation must be made. But reparation is not the same as revenge, which I believe just perpetuates a cycle of pain. 

This distinction is why the UK runs on a system built for justice, not revenge: consequence, not retribution.

When a crime is committed, jurors hear from not only the victims but also the perpetrators, to try to understand what happened and why. Judges look at the circumstances surrounding a crime, and the impact on victims when sentencing. 

And though it can go against all of our instincts, there also needs to be space for rehabilitation.

Thousands of charities working within this system shoulder one of the biggest challenges of all: dedicating their time to people responsible for instances of theft, violence, abuse, addiction, extreme violence or even death. 

Many are rooted in personal tragedy. Two people I really admire are Colin and Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim died in an IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.

Remarkably, they didn’t respond with hate and vengefulness. Instead, they worked really hard to understand, to forgive and to resolve.

The result was the international conflict resolution charity the Peace Centre, which I think may be one of the first in the world.  

I’ve tried to take this capacity to forgive and resolve to heart in my own life. A friend and I both had marriages that weren’t great and ended badly.

My mum’s advice was to behave publicly with dignity and grace, even when I felt the most angry and vengeful. It was very hard, but I managed to move on without bitterness.

My friend didn’t benefit from that advice and still carries in his heart a hatred towards his ex that affects him to this day. Hate doesn’t help anyone.

This is partly why I have so much respect for our colleagues that work with human beings who have caused harm to others.

Victims do not have to forgive – and they must be supported. But we also need those who step up to find a way forward for people who perpetrate crimes and harms. 

Doing this vital work takes extraordinary strength and wisdom. It’s unpopular and hard-to-fund work, too. It’s not kittens. 

This is one of the things I admire most about our sector. We don’t typically give up on anyone.

At heart, I think many who work in charity are drawn to justice, not revenge, to rehabilitation, not Sisyphean punishments.

Consequences, not retribution. Healing, not causing further harm. 

I, too, have to work continuously to remember that – just don’t murder my mum!

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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