Restorative justice: healing victims and reducing crime

Amid reports about gun violence, broken water mains and busted boilers in the public schools, two recent articles in The Baltimore Sun stood out like rays of sunshine. One story described an unlikely friendship between a former Baltimore City police officer and John Earl Williams, the man who shot him and killed another officer nearly 42 years ago. The other chronicled former City Councilwoman Rikki Spector’s efforts to turn around the lives of two teenagers who had assaulted her.

Both stories illustrate the success of “restorative justice” — an approach that aims to repair the harm caused by a crime instead of simply punishing the perpetrator. Emphasizing accountability by offenders and healing for victims, the concept’s central restorative practice is a meeting between the two parties.

This contact typically occurs only at the victim’s request and with extensive preparation led by a trained facilitator. Restorative-justice practices may not substitute for incarceration for violent crimes but are part of a multifaceted response. Studies show restorative practices not only promote healing but also reduce offender recidivism, which saves the state $8 for every $1 spent, according to Lawrence Sherman, a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland.

Restorative justice programs prove particularly effective for juvenile offenders. Also, victims and their families are more satisfied with these programs than they are with traditional approaches to juvenile justice. And, like adults, juvenile offenders who face their victims are less likely to engage in future criminal activity.

Imagine if someone like Rikki Spector had intervened when John Earl Williams was young, helping him understand that his actions have an impact and that adults can be loving.

Around the world, restorative justice is part of the criminal justice process, usually at the parole stage for violent offenders. In Wyoming and Minnesota, state parole boards or departments of correction facilitate “victim-offender dialogues,” which makes face-to-face conversation — and real healing — possible.

In Maryland, the only contact between victim and offender occurs at sentencing, when the victim describes to a judge, not to the offender, the impact of the crime. The offender can express remorse only with his or her back to the victim and only in the context of seeking a favorable sentence.

The sole state-sponsored contact between offender and victim (or the victim’s family) may occur at parole hearings, where the victim or victim’s family can oppose parole. The inmate is seated so he or she cannot see the victim or victim’s family. Victims don’t have the opportunity to tell offenders about the damage they caused. Nor do they have the chance to hear offenders talk about their remorse. Nor are they given the chance to experience the healing power of forgiveness. Attempts by criminal justice experts to change this situation have been rejected by Maryland officials.

As Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic leaders unveil their criminal justice agenda for this legislative session, they are understandably focused on violent crime, particularly the skyrocketing homicide rate in Baltimore. The General Assembly made a promising start two years ago by passing the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Act, designed to reduce Maryland’s prison population and fund programming to reduce recidivism. Many hoped the legislation signaled a move toward smart, fair and effective criminal justice policy. But with the ink barely dry on the law, leaders in both parties now are focusing on enhanced penalties, “truth in sentencing” and delayed parole — all policies that failed in the 1980s and ‘90s.

This approach will not reduce crime or help victims. Restorative justice practices, on the other hand, have been shown in other states to do both. If Maryland’s leaders truly care about effectively responding to crime, a move to integrate restorative practices into our criminal justice system would be a good place to start.

Jane C. Murphy is the Laurence M. Katz Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the director of its Juvenile Justice Project. Email: jmurphy@ubalt.edu; Twitter:@familylawprof.

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