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.