By Julia Steiny
David Karp, who directs Skidmore College’s Project on Restorative Justice, tells this story: Some time ago, a student, whom we’ll call Sarah, came to class one day visibly upset. She’d been “harmed,” in the language of Restorative Justice (RJ), so her plight was appropriate for discussion in a criminal justice class.
Apparently she had been hanging with friends near their off-campus apartment when they looked up and saw a guy staring at them. They noted that he was creepy, but whatever. They dispersed. That night Sarah and her housemates went to bed, but she heard noises in the living room. She peeked to see what was going on and saw the same guy. Freaked, she hid. The guy left the house. Sarah rallied her housemates, all of whom found another place to go that night. The lock on a door had been broken, so the creep had just slipped in – and could again.
That was Sunday. Monday was class. She was totally rattled. Her fellow students wanted blood, as is typical. They wanted the cops to come and stake the place out so they could capture the guy and throw him into jail.
Well, not so fast. Yes, the police should certainly be alerted. They should get a description of what is so far only a sketchy guy, and agree to keep an eye out for him and on that neighborhood. They would urge getting the lock fixed.
But the police aren’t going to expend resources on a stakeout, a crime scene with finger-printing, an APB and the rest of what college TV-watchers think cops should do to protect fellow students. The good professor’s burning question was: Sarah felt violated, so what did she need right now? How might Restorative Justice approach this situation?
Police do not make communities safe; communities make themselves safe.
Communities set standards for behavior designed to help each individual feel safe. The police are an extension of the community’s public safety efforts, but not a replacement for them — just as doctors support health, but are not replacements for healthy eating and exercise. The rise of professional services has reduced the need to care for ourselves and one another. So individuals fall into the habit of thinking that the responsibility for certain problems belongs to someone else.
In the Restorative Justice world, the community itself is the frontline of handing conflict and harm. Yes, professional police do the heavy lifting of controlling uncontrollable behavior. But safety is a product of building trust with one another. Crime statistics notwithstanding, safety is a feeling. These days, crime stats are down, but people still report feeling unsafe. So without dumping the responsibility on the police, Karp asked, how can we help Sarah feel safe?
The class had to stop a moment to think. That’s a way different problem than the one posed by our TV-infused faith in “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail em.”
One young man said he knew how to fix a lock and would do it after class.
Another student’s mother was a lawyer and knew about leases. He could solicit his mom’s help getting the girl and her roommates out of that lease so they could get another place.
A third suggested all give Sarah their cell phone numbers so she can always reach out and get someone to be with her if she’s not feeling safe at home.
Sarah felt enormously supported.
So right there, in the midst of a class discussion, the offender’s side of the equation ceased to be the issue among the students. Normally, in the current justice system, it’s the State versus Whomever. But where’s the victim? Who’s important here? In traditional justice, victims have no voice in the proceedings, nor does anyone fuss about their need to heal. But crime is a broken relationship between the victim and the offender. And that rupture in turn rocks the trust of the community.
Karp says, “Even if there is a discussion about reparations (to victims), we don’t talk about rebuilding trust. We build trust and community by allowing each member a voice in the process.”
Sarah came away from that class feeling far safer and more cared about personally than if the cops vowed some harsh action. Cops would not have wrapped her warmly in their community embrace and brought their own personal resources to her aid. This is no knock on cops; it’s just not what they do. Sarah got super lucky that she was in that she was in a class that morning that wanted to be a community she could trust. Individuals and communities would be better off caring for one another more intimately and using the professionals only when necessary. We’d all feel safer if Sarah’s “luck” were more common.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.