Although the restorative justice concept has been around for a long time, its use in the modern American criminal justice system has been relatively limited. The major reason for this lack of implementation rests in misconception about what it is and what it can accomplish. Because juvenile justice entails more of an atmosphere of rehabilitation rather than strict punishment, we see more incidents of restorative practices being utilized than we do in strictly adult settings.
Fortunately, this is becoming less true as the benefits of restoring a wrong and wrong doing host more and more success. The Vera Institute of Justice expressed support of restorative justice in their December 2013 Issue Brief. The brief looks at research studying Zero Tolerance policies.
Since these policies became popular in the early 90s fueled by fears of “super predators” and shocking incidents such as the Columbine shooting, more and more educational settings adopted them. Even though the original intent was to reduce weapons and drug related incidents, the policies morphed into a significant portion of suspension and/or expulsions due to student insubordination.
The broad stroke of these policies pushed more students into the school disciplinary process which is often hand-in-hand with the juvenile justice system. Fewer school administrators allowed for individual situations with individual consequences. If there was a problem of any kind, the child was sent out of the educational environment. The consequences to our children’s lives are still being calculated.
Thankfully, more and more juvenile justice, social service and educational professionals are looking for ways to move away from zero tolerance and towards a method of maintaining school safety and discipline with fewer consequences to a student’s future, as well as, consequences for the community as a whole. The Vera Institute of Justice outlines how restorative justice practices at school and on a community level are helping lead the charge to a new future.
In my experience, the most misconceived idea about restorative justice is that the person who commits a crime does not get punished. To debunk this myth, the idea of what punishment is must be addressed. Modern justice focuses on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. The crime is only “wrong” and therefore punishable by virtue of it breaking a rule created by society. Society is represented by the state and the state is the victim when a crime is committed because the wrong is breaking the state’s rule.
This concept of criminal justice makes the victim an inanimate, unapproachable and inhumane entity. It’s not a wonder that people find it hard to feel empathy for the state and to feel resentful when the punishment is intended to correct the harm done to this victim. When in truth, the actual victims are those people who have suffered harm due to the actions of the wrongdoer. Because there is a wrong committed and people harmed, the wrong doer must take responsibility both for the act and the harms created by the act.
Restorative justice does not absolve the wrong doer of their responsibility. Instead, it directs that responsibility to correct a harm from the state to the actual victims. With murder, the person who committed the crime owes the victim and his/her family a debt he or she can never repay. The murderer essentially can never make right her or her wrong although they are still responsible. In restorative justice, making amends is the “punishment”.
At the heart of restorative justice and the secret of its success is that it focuses on relationship. Like mentioned before, when the wrongdoing and the punishment is focused on the state, it is hard for the wrong doer to feel accountability and/or empathy with the victim. He or she feels disenfranchised and “othered” by a cold justice system that seems focused on just hurting them back. The chance to repair broken relationship doesn’t exist because the state does not have the necessary personhood to be a participant in relationship.
Humans are naturally social creatures. We are designed to work together for the common good. Many movies show this example well. My particular favorite is the scene in Braveheart where William Wallace (Mel Gibson) approaches the father of his recently slain wife and kneels before him. Because his wife was killed by the English occupiers after William had secretly married her, William felt responsible for her death. Kneeling in front of her father, he sought forgiveness for the harm he had caused and the subsequent breakdown of relationship. By placing his hand on William’s head, no matter how tentatively, the father accepted William’s responsibility and agreed to the healing. At that point, both parties acknowledged the responsibility and harm. After that, William’s attempt to make amends for the death is the plot of the entire movie.
Although this is an example that doesn’t include someone creating the death by their own hand, it does show the emotion in how wrongs can be righted by healing relationship.
The Vera Institute of Justice Brief outlined how several restorative justice practices were being utilized and finding success in several schools throughout United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. School administrative personnel, teachers, counselors and school resource officers were being trained by the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) as part of the SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change program.
By moving beyond zero tolerance and into an atmosphere of communication and relationship restoration, including responsibility and accountability not only from the students but also from the adults, a number of volatile schools were able to change their climate and reduce misbehavior, violence and bullying, suspensions and expulsions and student and teacher absenteeism. The changes increased instructional time, safety, sense of community and teacher and staff engagement. The attitudes that changed were staff, students, administrators and parents. Academics and positive behaviors increased. With such positive outcomes, IIPR, community leaders and criminal justice professionals wanted to see if these outcomes could be expanded.
Recognizing that restorative justice practices could and should go beyond school walls, restorative zones were established. These zones “include parents, churches, criminal justice, health and social service agencies in the process of enhancing and sustaining our neighborhoods.” The talking circles and the concepts of repairing harm and reintegrating a wrong doer back into community are helping to make these test communities stronger with less violence and criminal behavior.
An example that many professionals are watching is the restorative zone in Hull, UK. Hull is a city of 250,000 people and dominated by public housing and economic and social neglect. The goal is to train 23,000 people in a variety of disciplines in restorative practices. 5,000 people representing schools, justice, policing and social care have been trained so far and the city is seeing marked improvement due to the building, maintaining and repairing of relationships inherent in restorative practices. On our side of the pond, Detroit is looking at following in Hull’s footsteps.
Those of us in criminal justice, especially those who work with juveniles are often trying to find alternatives to the current concepts that just don’t seem to be working. Many of the punitive, retributive models of justice have harsh consequences that don’t do anything to reconcile a wrong doer with his or her community and often disenfranchise the actual victim. Jails are filling up. Social service and preventative programs are decreasing. Zero tolerance policies are pushing children through the school-to-prison pipeline. But, there is another way. Another way of looking at reducing wrongs, encouraging relationship and making society a safer and more human place. Restorative justice is the way to go for a healthy future.