Restorative Justice in Action

by Sean Dwyer, Assistant Program Director

Communicating is a necessary practice whenever human beings engage in any kind of social activities. Planning ahead, carrying out the activity and evaluating how it went afterwards remain at best imaginings if they do not at least take the form of discussion. There is of course always a risk that our activities do not manifest and take on real, tangible action-based forms, but rather remain at the stage of discussions, perhaps even general, conceptual discussions. Restorative Justice takes place in a particularly dangerous minefield of such risk. To say that a person who has committed a crime has to talk through their harmful act sounds soft and to ask them to create and honor an agreement sounds naïve.

However, as soon as Restorative Justice case workers make contact with the harming and harmed individuals, their families and the professionals involved in their case, they are convinced of the need, the possibility and the power of open, honest and meaningful expression. As soon as case workers begin to apply the established process together with these people, they become hopeful that years of learned behavior, current harmful environments as well as long term negative consequences can be worked through and resolved by structured dialogue and supervised follow through.

The question then becomes of what nature and quality that dialogue must be in order to move the parties through dark, helpless and often life-threatening places to an honest, profound and supportive place where they can heal and move forward. Even after this question has some semblance of a positive answer, there remains the question of the most appropriate consequences and the translation of the dialogue into concrete actions. As many stops along the route, as many moments, for people who have already suffered, accepted the consequences of bad choices or lost faith in themselves, to hesitate, to fear, to once again give up and to fall back into their previous cycles.

This possibility is especially dangerous in Restorative Justice, because the process is voluntary and so people can always choose to desist. At the same time, the voluntary nature of the process is also an important source of empowerment, because it is the parties themselves who must realize how serious the situation has become, how much they need to find a way out and what they require to be able to heal. We are there to guide them towards discovering and manifesting the answers to these questions.


Rosemead Family

Those are general, conceptual ideas; we now turn to the real activity in Restorative Justice. I am writing this article on a bus, on my way out to meet with a member of the support network for a young boy in Rosemead whose mother called the Police on him. No one knew what Restorative Justice was when one of the Sheriffs passed our pamphlet to the Mom, but after years of fighting, yelling, swearing, drugs, mental illness, abuse, failed counseling, school changes, calls to the police, occasional cool moments broken by the inevitable routine of fatigue, frustration, miscommunication and anger, all that stands between this young man and continuing down the path of despair, vulnerability and from there very possibly prison, is Restorative Justice. In the last six months, a youth, soon to be an adult, has stopped participating in the community, has lost nearly all of his friends, has begun taking drugs, has contemplated suicide. In his life, he has been abused, put down, used as a go-between in violent parental arguments, had a Father in and out of prison and a Mother over-tired, alone and frustrated, felt useless, judged, isolated and suicidal. Now he writes dark rap lyrics, hangs out with his one friend’s older brothers and doesn’t return any of his Mom’s texts.

So here is how we work this situation. Number one, we talk it all out with everyone. I have met with the two principal parties, the Mother and the youth, a couple times each, I have begun to build confidence with the youth particularly, but with both of them certainly. I have also met or spoken with individuals identified by the parties as potentially useful additional participants, of which there is a pastor and his wife, who has been aware of the entire family situation for a long while, and a family friend, who from the beginning identified herself as a support for the youth, not wanting it to seem like ganging up. Finally, there is someone that I have asked to join the circle, which is from a community organization that seeks to motivate and involve youth who are wavering in their life path.

Throughout the talks I have had with the participants, I have continued to consistently develop their understanding of the process and of various positive communication tools in addition to going ever deeper into the facts of the situation from their perspective. I have been clear from the beginning about the goals of the process; having an opportunity to communicate freely, attempting to gain an understanding of the other and finally coming potentially to a positive agreement for moving forward. We have therefore been talking from the beginning about what they need to communicate, what they understand of the other, what they need for things to improve and what they would accordingly want to receive and be willing to offer in an eventual agreement. Indeed, after two meetings with each person, we already have a lot of good ideas developed for that agreement.

It has also always been a possibility that one or the other of the parties drop out. After the initial phone call from the Mother, I went to their house to meet the youth, who knew nothing about it yet. The last time his Mother called someone about him, four patrolmen from the Sheriff’s department who, from the Mother’s perspective, spoke with him for some time and then told her, “He wants to learn the hard way” and from the youth’s perspective, could be heard talking about him with his Mother, gave him a lot of cold attitude and felt threatening. For my part, I went for a walk with him around the town. We talked about all kinds of stuff, I went over the process many times, underlining the fact that it was his process and that we needed his approval not only to be able to start but to be able to continue and finish. The Mother tells me that he is notorious for saying yes to things, for beginning them even and then for ducking out on them and letting it fall. It is therefore essential to maintain his interest, and hers, as much as it is to push them beyond their comfort zones in attempting to effect change in their relationship. I say pushing them both forward, because finally there is harm that has been done on both sides and so, as is so often the case, the situation is highly complex and involves both responsibility and healing on both sides.

I now have to decide, then, what will be discussed during the session, in what order it will be discussed and how far each discussion will be permitted to continue. We have a good, full group with a lot of good intentions and practical difficulties, we have people who justify and downplay their own negative behavior and who feel ashamed to take pride in their accomplishments. We have people who both hate and love each other, who want to disavow the other but who actually have a lot of similar feelings and relationships to the outside world. We have to find the best way, there were no other way has worked, to get them to get along and communicate effectively.

We are going to organize our discussion, passing explicitly through a number of predetermined points and progressive stages in the process. We are going to attempt to place the perspectives of the other in their reasonable subjectivity and then facilitate their understanding as much as possible by the other party through questions, summaries and reframing. We are going to formulate the needs and capacities of the parties into elements to be made up into an agreement of which ultimately the youth will formulate the terms and for which he will be responsible. He will write them up with his support network and submit them to the rest of the circle for critiques and final modifications.

Afterwards, we will maintain a regular contact with the parties and seek to assure the successful application of the agreement. I will very possibly be, as agreed upon in the terms of the agreement, meeting the youth once a month to see about the respect of the agreement and the on-going relationship at his home as well as seeing about producing some of his hip hop music in a video form. In this way, from negative energy and hurtful miscommunication will hopefully come a new, positive relationship of mutual support and open communication; from increasingly antisocial behavior will come positive activities and mutual encouragement. Life will certainly not become easy after one session, but they will be facing it together instead of running away from it separately.

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