The current issue of Utne Reader describes a number of posts from
GlobalIdeasBank.org and other bright ideas for improving the world.
One of the ideas, summarized from an article in Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, describes a revamp implemented in the criminal code of the Navajo Nation.
The revamp, implemented back in 2000, favors using peacemakers to mediate restitution between parties in criminal cases, rather than assigning jail time.
This process involves the traditional Navajo concept of “nalyeeh,” or peacemaking, in which the offender is confronted with a demand to talk out their action and deals with the harmful act in a positive way.
Under the Navajo system, offenders and all persons who suffered from the harmful act, usually including the families of those involved, are brought into a session with a community leader. In a mediated session, they talk about their feelings regarding the matter, and a plan is formed to deal with the situation positively. Family members of the offender come forward to help with restitution and make certain the offender does not repeat the offense.
Peacemaking settlements are often sealed with symbolic items or written agreements.
The Navajo Nation sought this method to ensure meaningful restitution, instead of simple monetary payments to victims, and as an alternative to the revolving door of the justice system. This solution helps Navajo judges deal with limited jail space. According to the Yes! article, Navajo Nation courts, which cover areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, see about 28,000 criminal cases per year yet have jail space for only 220 people at a time.
Nalyeeh offers an alternative practice for our justice system as well. Like the Navajo, we continually face overcrowding in our jails, as well as controversy over whose backyard will be used to build new prisons.
Nationwide, minorities make up a disproportionate number of prison inmates, and we are one of the few world leaders to still implement the death penalty.
Under the U.S. justice and prison systems, situations that lead people to commit violent crimes are fostered in the very acts that are prescribed to deal with the problems. A person convicted and sentenced to a prison term, once released, faces increased difficulties in finding work, which causes frustration that may lead to further crimes. If children are involved, the children of convicts grow up with a lack of emotional support from the absentee parent and may later be prone to committing other crimes.
By replacing prison sentences with nalyeeh, judges would be able to make sure that convicts do not return with repeat offenses, and that victims receive, instead of simple dollar amounts, settlements that bring true reparations. Peacemaking is not, of course, applicable for all crimes. For a large number of offenses, however, nalyeeh may offer an effective way to ensure that perpetrators are reformed.
Similar peacemaking programs have been implemented for a variety of specific situations, including alcoholism and domestic violence. This same peacemaking approach could be used to effectively deal with hate crimes and road rage.
Nalyeeh works, in part, by teaching people how to avoid hurting others, without use of suppression tactics.
While there are many ancient traditions that are still beneficial, nalyeeh is one that could improve the way we handle criminal and other offenses.
Vincent Lizzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org