Criminal Justice 2008

What is restorative justice?

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Peter Woolf and Will Riley (Copyright by The Forgiveness Project)

Uploaded at: 2010. 09. 27.


“I never knew then that a burglary could make people feel sad, angry, bad, depressed, isolated, guilty - yes guilty about things I'd done!”

Peter Woolf was a career criminal and heroin addict when in March 2002 he broke into the home of businessman, Will Riley. As a result Peter received a three year prison sentence. Sometime after the attack, Will was asked if he would like to meet Peter through a Restorative Justice programme.

I can remember a gang fight in London when I was ten years old. It was Hoxton against Essex Road. All the bigger kids got tooled up and there was I, a ten year old kid, wanting to be part of it. So I got a big shovel and nearly pummelled someone to death with it. Another kid saw me and said, “look at him, he’s going to be the governor one day, he’s completely mad”. I decided then it was all right to be completely mad.

I picked up the drugs at ten, at 14 I was taking heroin and soon I was committing every crime you can think of, apart from murder and sex offences. I went from being a very successful criminal, knocking about with stars and footballers, to becoming totally addicted and living in non-stop fear. I call it the Park Lane to park bench syndrome.

On 6th March 2002 I woke up in a squat in East London. There was a bath half-full of human waste, drug paraphernalia all over the floor, and blood squirted up the wall. I drank my last half can of Super Duper lager before going out on the street. I was a predator now. I walked from east London to north London, to a rather exclusive, well-heeled square where I burgled a house. When I went into the bedroom, I thought I’d change my clothes because I was stinking. Opening the wardrobe, I looked down and saw a large pair of real quality shoes. I thought to myself: “Good grief, the geezer who owns this house must be big.” Then, at that moment, I heard a voice say, “What are you doing in my house?” I looked up and there was Will. We fought and fell down several flights of stairs until he manoeuvred me on to the street outside where I was finally arrested.

When I agreed to meet Will at a Restorative Justice conference, only part of me wanted to say sorry to this fellow. If I’m honest, the majority of me only went to get out of my cell. At the conference I sat down and started going on about poor old me until it came to a point when I said, “Will, when we first met…” And at that he blew. “We didn’t meet in a cocktail bar,” he said, “you broke into my house”. Then he started listing all his feelings. I never knew till then that a burglary could make people feel sad, angry, bad, depressed, isolated, guilty – yes guilty about things I’d done!

Suddenly I was sharing his pain. He handed it over to me as though he was saying, “since you’re here, you can share this with me,” and when I did I knew there was no way on this planet I could harm another being the way I’d harmed him and thousands like him.

When the facilitator asked Will what he’d like to see happen to me I was certain he’d say “lock him up and throw away the keys”…but he didn’t. He said he’d like to see me get an education, address my drug and alcohol problems, may be even get a job. That blew me away. Today life is good. I have a beautiful wife, beautiful children, lovely home. I’ve got everything I need. And I believe all of this came out of this one event. All my life I’d chosen the wrong path but on that day, having met Will and walking out of the RJ conference, I chose the right one.

The thing that I tend to trivialise is the violation, someone entering into your house when you haven’t invited them in. It’s a forced entry, like a rape. And then you go into a RJ conference, having had this awful experience, not knowing what’s going to happen. All you know is that you will meet the person you fought with, who robbed you. As I sat there, and Peter gave his spiel, I started feeling very annoyed and very bored. I just switched off, saying to myself “what am I doing here? This is a complete waste of time.” Then Peter said those words….. “when we first met” ….and suddenly I wasn’t bored anymore. I was furious now and I told him how I felt. It came out like a fire hose. I told him how he’d destroyed the one belief I had in myself, that I could protect my home and my family from people like him. Was he remorseful? The guy was gutted, it was like a train had hit him. His lower lip was almost quivering.

Finally, when the meeting was over, we had tea and biscuits. We were just people who had been pushed against a wall, and who slowly but surely had come together around a table to work it out. Those who don’t talk – which is the majority of victims – are delaying and even maintaining pain.

Now, six years later, it’s clear it wasn’t simply about Peter. That meeting has had a huge impact on me as well. It’s not directly attached to forgiveness and yet it is. Maybe forgiveness is a by product. It’s a two way process. It’s not me talking to a wall, it’s me talking to a human being. Talking is the only way forward. If you don’t talk, it’s all over. Luckily, Peter and I are still talking. He’s a great man, very clever, has a lovely sense of humour, a genuine raw presence and I’m hugely fortunate to be able to count him as a friend.

You can see a film of Peter and Will in which they tell their stories here.

As a result of this experience, Peter wrote a book, „The Damage Done” published by Bantum Press, while Will founded the organisation „Why me?”. This organisation has been set up by, and for, victims of crime who have benefited from their experience of Restorative Justice (where victims and offenders meet face to face). Their vision is that Restorative Justice should be available for all victims of crime who want it.

The story and the picture is featured on our page are used courtesy of The Forgiveness Project. All the words and pictures are copyrighted to The Forgiveness Project.

The Forgiveness Project is a UK-based charitable organisation which explores forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution through real-life human experience. They work in prisons, schools, faith communities, and with any group who want to explore the nature of forgiveness whether in the wider political context or within their own lives. 

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