Restorative justice has been around for centuries both nationally and internationally and has been shown to be effective and to provide positive outcomes among both offenders and victims. Yet, the restorative approach remains underused by our current justice system, which instead relies on larger and larger prisons to house disproportionate numbers of black male youth.
Restorative justice is based on involving offenders in determining outcomes and rehabilitating them through reconciliation with their victims. It takes the community and the victims' voices into account to collaboratively develop consequences that hold the offender responsible and encourage him or her to work toward repairing the harm.
Specifically, a process known as "community conferencing" provides alternatives to the zero tolerance policy that pervades our juvenile justice system, both in communities and in schools. A circle of people impacted by a crime gather together for a discussion facilitated by a neutral, professional, restorative practices practitioner. The community members include offenders and their supporters, sometimes those present during the event and their supporters, victims and their supporters and others who have a stake in whatever offense occurred. This practice reflects the premise that people are much more than their worst act.
In a restorative environment, offenders are asked to share their stories — what happened, what they were thinking, who has been affected and in what way. The suffering families hear from the individuals about who they are as human beings. Those severely harmed have a chance to look the offender and his or her family "in the eye" and speak their minds about what they were thinking when they received the news and how it has changed their lives forever. Others impacted by the event — sometimes including law enforcement or first responders — are invited to share how they are affected. Young people in particular must hear how the community is harmed before they can begin to understand the full impact of their actions.
The group is given the opportunity to consider ways to make things better. In restorative justice, the term often used is to "repair the harm." The community conference serves several functions that distinguish it from the predominant mode of law which so often results in long term incarceration of youth. First, the offenders fully learn the impact of their actions. The victims' voices are heard. The circle of community members — including the offenders and their supporters — gives rise to agreements, rather than a judicial system that hinges on a judge's decision making, the lawyering skills of the defense and prosecutor and the effectiveness of the defense psychologist. The community's agreement results from a facilitated and collaborative discussion of those participating in the conference. There is brainstorming and creative thinking often outside of the limits placed on our judicial decision-makers.
Consider an example of restorative justice in practice in some public schools. In most schools, if students are caught possessing or distributing alcohol or illegal drugs, zero tolerance policies often dictate suspension, alternative schooling or expulsion. For an expelled 16-year old on the low end of the socio-economic ladder, lacking resources for private school or support for home schooling, the long term result may be the "Pipeline to Prison" slide from school into the juvenile justice system. With a community conference as described above, the student offender hears the full impact of breaking school rules on his family members, his friends, his teachers and even the local school district representative. An agreement reached may include public service to the community, counsling or perhaps mentoring younger students about the effects of drug or alcohol use. A school system may agree to allow a student to return to school.
If restorative justice tools are used more often when rules are broken, rather than deferring to zero tolerance regulations, young people can better absorb the impacts of their decisions. And data strongly suggest that the recidivism rates are considerably lower than in the punitive (and predominant) model of juvenile justice.
Data highlighting disproportionate treatment of lawbreakers have made lawmakers, educators and community groups today increasingly aware of the need for change in the justice system and school discipline policies as well. Restorative justice and the associated restorative practices in schools create a more compassionate, humane and safer community; costs far less than the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration; and works to transform and re-integrate offenders into productive law-abiding citizens instead of individuals branded forever as criminals. These changes will result in greater justice for all.
Barbara Sugarman Grochal is director of the School Conflict Resolution Programs at the Center for Dispute Resolution within the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Her email address is BGrochal@law.umaryland.edu.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.