by Julia Steiny
Internationally, the Restorative Justice community set aside November 17-24 to celebrate the power of Restoration. Of the many sites offering resources on this topic, I recommend Canada’s, for a start.
But what is Restorative Justice?
Well, crudely, it’s an alternative to the justice system we’ve got — the one that now has about 2.2 million Americans behind bars at about $30,000 per inmate, per year. (Do the math.) Our punitive justice tends to ruin lives — of the offender and their community — and largely ignores the needs of the victims and their communities.
By contrast, restorative justice works to salvage the lives of all parties, victims, offenders, their families and their larger community, to the extent possible. Restoration first caught fire in the late 1970s in New Zealand, and has since gone viral, permeating the judicial, social and educational systems of countries like Australia, Sweden, Norway and others. It’s huge. We’re lagging the developed world on this one.
To illustrate the distinction, I’ll relate the stories of two youthful offenders, Aaron and Powhare. The stems of their stories are almost identical, until they slam into their respective countries’ justice systems.
Aaron was from a small town in Vermont. When his parents divorced, he lived with his father. While he saw his mother occasionally, she did not have custody. When he was 15, she was killed in a motorcycle accident. The neighbors were fully aware that Aaron’s father was emotionally abusing the boy, but did nothing. Who knows what the schools did or didn’t know, but Child Protective Services were never engaged on his behalf. At 16, Aaron killed his father with a shotgun.
Powhare was from a small town in New Zealand. I’m guessing from his name that he’s a Maori, an Aboriginal tribe that is a NZ minority group. Powhare’s parents also divorced; he lived with Dad; mom was only nominally in the picture. The neighbors knew the father was abusing the boy emotionally and physically, but did nothing. Protective Services were never involved. Powhare killed his father with a shotgun at 14.
Their fates diverge with two radically-different justice systems.
Aaron faced America’s retributive system, which asks:
* What rules or laws were broken?
* Who is to blame?
* How should they be punished?
Oddly, Vermont, alone among the states, has a hugely successful restorative juvenile-justice system, which cuts recidivism to single digits and incarcerates the smallest percentage of youth in America. (Massachusetts is 8th lowest; vengeful Rhode Island is 31 from the top.) However, Vermont law remands violent juvenile offenders into the adult system, where they get the punitive treatment.
Aaron pled guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a first-degree murder conviction. The Court sentenced him to 22 years. He now has a swastika tattoo and a mohawk, common efforts to signal toughness to ward off the assaults accepted as part of prison life. This is our idea of “justice.”
The birth of Restorative Justice
In the late 1970s, the Maori elders demanded that the government stop incarcerating their kids at a disproportionally higher rate than White kids. Post-prison, young offenders returned home worse — hardened, not accepting responsibility at all. Instead, the elders wanted the offender, victim and their families to participate in their traditional tribal circle. This evolved into “Family Group Conferencing,” a model of restorative justice. All young offenders, of all races, are now offered FGC, although they can opt for conventional Court. The severity of Powhare’s crime required his extended family to convince the Court of their commitment to supporting the boy’s restitution.
Restorative justice is “victim-driven,” focusing on repairing their harm, as much as possible, so the community can live together peacefully and safely. Using a formal conferencing process, the victim, offender, and their families work with social workers and police to devise a restitution plan on which they all must agree. To be eligible for FGC, the offender has to admit his guilt and take responsibility for his actions. Restorative systems ask:
* Who has been hurt?
* What are their needs?
* Who is obligated to address those needs, to make restitution, and to restore relationships and the community as a whole, as best as possible?
The face-to-face conference is generally quite emotional and painful.
As a result of his conference, Powhare submitted to intensive Court supervision for 2 years, during which he agreed to live with the extended family. He underwent a psyche assessment and counseling. The restitution plan forbade drugs, alcohol or access to firearms.
In the end, Powhare got an education and now works for the NZ forest service. Instead of incurring taxpayer costs for something he did at 14, he’s a productive, contributing member of family, tribe, and larger community.
To my mind, both boys were themselves victims, but only one encountered a justice system able to tease out his circumstances. Restoration gave Powhare’s life back to him. Retribution sent Aaron to prison, a place that turns inmates into primitive beasts, with infinitely reduced chances of making a decent life for themselves when they get out. Aaron was an abused kid. Could he have been saved? Our justice system doesn’t bother to find out.
And people wonder why I’m such a nut for Restoration.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.