On the evening of March 16, 2019, a group of Community Justice Team mediators in Monrovia, Liberia, responded to questions from community residents who were interested in the nature and scope of work by the mediators. Their work involves working in low-income communities to mediate disputes and build trust through fair and equitable local justice. In particular, the residents of the Glass Factory Gardnersville neighborhood were interested in the case of an arrest of a 22-year old man, Samuel, for allegedly stealing a cellphone. The mediators proceeded to explain the case and their part in resolving it.
Samuel worked selling and delivering biscuits. One of his customers was a woman named Oretha. One day, while Oretha went inside her home to get her payment for the delivery, Samuel took the cellphone she had accidentally left on the porch and disappeared. Once Oretha returned with the payment in hand, she realized that her phone was missing and decided to track Samuel down.
Fortunately, a neighbor was able to identify Samuel and where he lived. Oretha and the neighbor went to Samuel’s house several times, but they were unable to locate him. Three days after the theft, Oretha and her neighbor saw Samuel sitting on the front porch with his father. Once Samuel saw Oretha approaching, he quickly left his father and ran into the house. Upon their arrival on the front porch, Oretha and her neighbor told Samuel’s father what he had done three days earlier. Suddenly, Samuel’s father called out and entered the house to find him. The police were called, and they arrived to arrest Samuel and take him to the Zone 4 Base Police Station in Gardnersville.
At the station, Samuel admitted to stealing the cellphone and identified Sue as the person he sold it to. It was several days before the police were able to locate Sue, who was then jailed for buying stolen goods.
At this point, the local Community Justice Team (CJT) had heard about Oretha’s case and reached out to her to explain how they could help with mediation and navigating the justice system. Since Oretha did not have time to appear in court, she gratefully accepted their help.
In order to coordinate their efforts with the CJT, the police briefed the team on the outcome of the investigation. The police then asked the CJT if they could find a way to restore the missing phone - or its value - so the case could be resolved without further court action. In return, the police asked the CJT for a briefing within three days.
So, the CJT contacted Sue in order to negotiate the return of Oretha’s cellphone outside of court. Sue admitted that she sold the stolen cellphone to a 25-year old man named Joseph. The CJT then approached Joseph to advocate for the return of the cell phone to its rightful owner, Oretha. The next day, Oretha received her cellphone back, and the police were told that the matter had been amicably resolved.
Once the CJT mediators explained what had happened in the case of the stolen cellphone as well as their part in resolving it to the community residents, the mediators talked about the effectiveness of community approaches to conflict resolution involving mediators, community leaders, and the police. They also discussed how the Community Justice Team model provides community members with access to justice and conflict resolution outside of the overwhelmed and overcrowded formal justice system.
In regard to access, the mediators acknowledged how the formal justice system can be financially intimidating due to the plethora of bureaucratic and legal fees and, as such, is inaccessible to most community members. The mediators talked about how many low income citizens do not have trust nor confidence in the formal justice system to redress grievances. Mediators also commerserated with community members about navigating the endless number of bureaucratic hurdles and the inevitable delays in reaching a resolution. They also recognized that, since most people live below a dollar a day, wasting time and money wasn’t an option.
In response to these issues within the formal justice system, CJT mediators advertised conflict resolution models like the Community Justice Teams as an accessible, affordable, and trusted way to address communal conflict and grievances. In particular, the mediators talk about how a community approach to conflict resolution promotes peaceful co-existence amongst the parties, regardless of wrongdoing. As indicated in the case of the stolen cellphone, CJT mediators were able to bring the victim and perpetrator together to remedy the situation. The mediators explained that, through mediation at the CJT center, conflicting parties can resolve their differences and promise to remain peaceful and friendly in front of mediators and relatives.
The CJTs are trained to work collaboratively with the police, court, and community to bring to a fair and logical conclusion to any misunderstanding between neighbors in low income communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence and harmony between neighbors.
John Kamma is the Community Justice Teams Manager at Accountability Lab and Founder of the Citizens Bureau. The Citizens Bureau’s Community Justice Teams help citizens access the formal justice system and utilize alternative dispute resolution tactics to resolve communal conflicts.