Introduction to Restorative Justice

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The McCord family uses a talking stick at dinner on the show Madam Secretary, one of the first times I’ve ever seen Restorative Justice displayed in pop culture. Photo Courtesy of TV Spoiler. 

Justice. When someone talks about “doing justice” or “getting justice” or “seeking justice,” it’s always about settling a score. After someone is harmed and they call for justice in anger or grief, they are asking for a similar harm or equally hurtful one to be placed against the offender. Our “criminal justice” system is set up to do exactly that. Listen to the harms done against a person, group, or idea and deliver the sentence equal to the crime committed, with punishments becoming more severe in relationship to the crime. For example, petty shoplifting rarely leads to hard time and usually ends with a fine or community service because the harm that occurs is more minimal. On the other hand, a violent crime like murder or assault leads to longer time in isolation from society – prison – with limited freedom, a punishment equal (apparently) to the harm committed.

The thrust behind a victim or survivor’s want of justice is not to be the cause of pain to another human being, but to make the offender feel the way they have been made to feel. Very few people exist in the world who relish the idea of being the cause of someone’s expulsion from society or lack of freedom. What they want is to have their pain understood, and we have been led to believe that the only way an offender will understand that pain and change his or her ways is by a punishment in the criminal justice system. In prison, after all, a person will have time to think over their actions, realize their mistakes, and make better decisions in the future.

So why isn’t that happening? Most people who wind up behind bars are likely to end up there again – about 75% of formerly incarcerated people by the time five years has passed. Anecdotal evidence shows that incarcerated individuals are not spending their time in deep reflection on their actions, and many, many people blame their victims for their position.

In the criminal justice system, there is a distinct gap between the offender and the victim/survivor that has led to the overcrowded, inefficient, expensive, and dangerous institutions we hear about today. If the victim’s goal is for the offender to understand their harm, repay them to the best of their ability, and never harm another person – as many indicate as their primary hope – then our system is doing a very poor job of achieving that goal.

Instead, the criminal justice system has resorted to the easiest, most short-sighted way of dealing with offenders in society: lock them up for as long as we can with as few opportunities for rehabilitation that we can justify and make the rest of society forget about them. As a result, offenders leave prison – and almost all of them eventually come back – and they reoffend. They do not know how their victim felt, how it affected them, or how to avoid it in the future.

But there is an alternative. As opposed to retributive justice, restorative justice is a widely practiced and quickly growing alternative or extension to the current criminal justice system. As an idea, restorative justice is a philosophy that believes that the victim, offender, and community can come together and openly discuss the harm and its affects and decide independently the course of action. In every case there are harms and needs, and the needs need to be fulfilled by the offender in order for the parties to move on. Everyone takes responsibility for their actions (not that the victim is being blamed, this is more focused on the community’s actions and the offender’s actions) and works to find a solution.

As an example. A student, towards the end of the school year, decides to rip open her backpack and scatter papers across the floor in her hallway before running out the door. As a result, the custodians have to pick up all the paper. But additionally, one student slips on some worksheets and bruises her elbow.

There are two options. A zero tolerance policy for disrespectful or disruptive behavior might automatically put this student in school suspension for a few days. The student never learns that another student slipped or the extra work that the custodians had to put in to clean up the mess. She returns to school angry that she was singled out and becomes more defiant. Her parents, left out of the conversation, don’t understand why this act of teenage rebellion was punished so severely. This is retributive, and it is a very simplified analogy to the current criminal justice system.

A restorative justice program at the school may result in a different solution. At a conference, the student, her parents, a school administrator, a teacher, and a custodian sit around in a circle. Each is given the opportunity to speak and explain their point of view. The disruptive student, at the end, realizes the impact her split-second, poor decision had on the school. The team agrees that the student will spend one morning on the Saturday after school ends with the custodians. The parents agree to drive her there, and the custodians agree to giving her some work to do. Everyone leaves feeling justice has been served, and we know the student is not likely to do something like that again. This is restorative justice, and programs all around the world are working to make it more than “alternative.”

If our primary goal in criminal justice is to minimize crime in the future and making our communities safe and prosperous, we should be focused on systems that truly achieve that. Restorative justice really does keep people from offending again, and perhaps equally important, it makes victims and survivors feel that they have been heard and had a part to play in enacting justice. Over the next years of my life, one of my primary goals will be to not only learn more about restorative justice myself but to show our leaders how it can revolutionize our broken system and work towards having…

No more victims. 


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