Restorative Justice

III. What Is Restorative Justice?

In cities, towns, and rural areas in dozens of countries, victims, family members, and other citizens acquainted with a young offender or victim of a juvenile crime gather to determine what should be done to ensure accountability for the offense. Based on the centuries-old sanctioning and dispute resolution traditions of the Maori, an indigenous New Zealand aboriginal band, family group conferences (FGCs) were adopted into national juvenile justice legislation in 1989 as a dispositional requirement for all juvenile cases with the exception of murder and rape. FGC, or “conferencing,” is widely used in many countries as a police-initiated diversion alternative, a means of determining disposition (sentence) for juveniles and adults, and has been used for more than a decade in communities in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois, and other U.S. states and much of Canada. Facilitated by a coordinator that may be a youth justice worker, volunteer, or police officer, FGCs are aimed at ensuring that offenders are made to face up to community disapproval of their behavior, that an agreement is developed for repairing the damage to victim and community, and that community members recognize the need for reintegrating the offender once he or she has made amends.

Item: In schools in Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; and many other U.S. cities and towns, middle and high school students in conflict with other youth, students being bullied or bullying others, and youth removed from the classroom for disciplinary violations meet with students, teachers, and staff they have harmed or who have harmed them, as well as parents and community members, in restorative peacemaking circles. These informal dialogues make use of a “talking piece” (an object held by the speaker) as a means of preventing interruption when a participant is speaking and regulating dialogue about the harm caused to victims, acceptance of responsibility and often apologies by offenders, and an agreement for offenders to accomplish various tasks aimed at making amends or repairing the harm they have caused.

Item: In Rwanda, formerly incarcerated members of one of two primary tribal groups, the Hutu, implicated in genocidal killings of the other primary tribal group, the Tutsi, participate in lengthy (sometimes multiple-day) “truth-telling” sessions in communal courts (known as Gacaca). Aimed at repentance, reparation, and eventually possible reconciliation with surviving family members of their victims, participants in these sessions ultimately accept responsibility for murder and other crimes, apologize, and make commitments of extensive service or reparation (as money, goods or services) aimed at eventual healing and peace.

Item: In San Jose, California, and hundreds of other communities in the United States, youth arrested for crimes and considered for diversion from court or probation meet with citizen volunteers in Neighborhood Accountability Boards who, with youth and family input, develop a community and victim-oriented restorative sentence as an alternative to a court order. When asked why they believe this approach “works” better than traditional juvenile justice intervention, they report that the program is effective because “we aren’t getting paid to do this”; “we can exercise the authority that parents have lost”; “we live in their (offender’s and victim’s) community”; “we give them input into the contract”; “we are a group of adult neighbors who care about them”; “they hear about the harm from real human beings”; and “we follow up.”

Item: In a prison in Texas, the mother of a daughter raped and murdered a decade before and her granddaughter, along with a trained facilitator, meet with the offender responsible for 3 days of dialogue after several months of preparation by the facilitator. The goal of this meeting is to provide the survivors with answers to their questions about how this young woman had died and hear the offender’s story. At the end of a 2-day session, the mother and granddaughter forgive the murderer.

Item: In residential facilities for youth convicted of serious and often violent crimes in Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and other states, staff and the youth they are responsible for are learning new methods of discipline based on restorative justice principles (versus standard reward/punishment models) aimed ultimately at changing the culture and organizational climate of their facility.

Item: In Northern Ireland, formerly incarcerated Republican (IRA) and Loyalist combatants in the decades-long conflict in the city of Belfast meet with young offenders in community restorative justice conferences. While only a few years before, youth like these caught stealing, joyriding, or committing other crimes were beaten and even shot (“knee-capped”) by these combatants (who assumed de facto responsibility for preserving order in communities where police were not welcome), today these youth are held accountable by meeting with their victims and community members and agreeing to make amends through reparation and service to the individuals and communities harmed by their actions.

Item: In inner-city Cleveland, Ohio, former incarcerated felons participate in civic community service projects that typically involve providing assistance to the elderly, helping youth in trouble and those struggling in school, and rebuilding parks. For their efforts, the former inmates “earn their redemption” by making amends to the community they previously harmed, rebuilding trust, and making new, positive connections with community groups and prosocial community members.

Item: In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, neighbors in a primarily white, protestant, middle-class neighborhood in a Philadelphia suburb place a Star of David in their windows during the holiday season in solidarity with a Jewish family who the night before had been the victim of a group of skinheads who burned a cross in the family’s front yard. With input from the families and community members, the young men are diverted from the court with the understanding that they will meet with the victimized family and a rabbi who will also arrange community service and ongoing lessons in Jewish history for the boys.

What do these diverse brief portraits of restorative justice have in common? While involving different cultures and ethnic groups addressing a wide range of harm and conflict, these practices share a basic commitment. This commitment is to primary involvement of the true “stakeholders” in crime and conflict, in a very intentional effort to pursue a distinctive justice outcome. Aimed at achieving “accountability” by allowing offenders to actively repair harm to the individuals and communities they have injured, this outcome has been found to be more satisfying to both victims and offenders than those pursued in a court or other formal process. While the term restorative justice has in recent years entered popular discourse (after being featured on the Oprah show and in other popular media venues), restorative policy and practice is often widely misunderstood. It is important, therefore, to first be clear about what restorative justice is not.

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