Restorative Justice in the Community
by Sean Dwyer, Assistant Program Director
It is nearly impossible to imagine a positive experience in the prison system. There is always the possibility of reading many books, working out, perhaps even taking school courses, but the experience for the majority of inmates is encouragement towards an ongoing path of criminal activities and negative social connections. Besides seeking to change this path for individuals having behaved criminally in our communities, Restorative Justice seeks to heal the effects of the criminal behavior and reintegrate the individual positively into the community. Not only, therefore, will youth and adult offenders be pulled away from a long-term criminal path in and out of prison, but they will have new opportunities to grow as people and as community members. The Restorative Justice program seeks to attain this goal through an extensive referral network, a solid, effective process and significant contributions to the community in which it operates. In this article, these elements will be explored in order to demonstrate the positive role that Restorative Justice can play in any and all communities, including your own.
Restorative Justice, in its very essence, must be firmly entrenched in the specific community that it seeks to serve. It must be established and maintained through relationships with the people of that community. This is no less true on the level of the referral network that channels cases into the program. The Police, the Courts, the Probation offices, the District Attorney and the Public Defender, to name only those, all play a very important role in, before and potentially during, the process. A solid relationship of understanding and a clear referral process is required between these institutions and the organization offering Restorative Justice.
In this way, a referral agent, when confronted with an individual who has assaulted someone or who has stolen or vandalized someone’s property, will contact a Restorative Justice case worker.This case worker will immediately begin the process with the victim, the offender, their families, appropriate community members as well as representatives from the referral agent institution. The referral agent will be kept informed of the case’s progress, will be invited to participate officially in the Restorative Justice session and will be able to approve the agreement ultimately decided upon by the parties.
A police officer, then, can be associated with the restoration of the situation and the improvement of the community, as opposed to the process of taking away, judging and punishing the offender. This offending individual, finally, remains a community member despite their actions and despite their potentially long-term absence in prison. Their relations, as well as their potentially positive contribution to society, can be effectively encouraged and preserved.
Once a case has been referred to Restorative Justice, a consistent, transparent and participative process begins. The case worker will contact the parties as well as their families and any appropriate community members in order to fully intake the events of the case as well as to work with the parties to determine their willingness and readiness to participate meaningfully in the process. If the case worker believes the case is appropriate for the Restorative Justice process, it will be submitted to the Program Director for a second screening and a session will then be scheduled among all participants. The process must move along quickly for a variety of reasons, of which assuring a heightened sense of accountability for the offending individual and a better alignment with the regular system of Justice.
During the session, the facilitator introduces the process and invites all participants to approve of the session agenda. The referral agent is then invited to describe the events of the case. The offending individual speaks next, accepting or denying responsibility and speaking about the situation from their perspective. The offended individual, or victim, is then invited to speak about the effects that the offensive behavior had on them. Afterwards, all of the participants can contribute regarding their own experience of the situation and its effects on them and their community.
In the final phase of the session, the family of the offending individual is invited to move into their own private space in which they will create a proposal Restoration Agreement, while the family of the offended individual can think about what is important to them in such an agreement. All participants come together to discuss the proposed agreement which can be modified, not only by the offended individual but by all of the community members as well as the referral agent. An agreement ultimately will include such things as monetary or in-kind restitution, community involvement and competency development. The referral agent can verify that the agreement is not excessively lenient or hard on the offender. They can also potentially be involved in the realization of the agreement. Within a year of this session a follow-up will be performed with the parties to determine the agreement’s success.
The benefits of this process to the community are numerous. An individual who has faced their own responsibility, surrounded by those affected by their crime, and who has themselves proposed a solution and sought to realize that solution, has an exponentially decreased chance of engaging in criminal activity again. In addition to this important sense of accountability from having talked and listened through their crime, this individual is salvaged in favor of the community itself. This individual is not absent in prison, rather they are engaged in repairing the harm that they caused, whether that involves earning money to pay the victim or working to fix a hole in their home. Beyond even this restoration, the community will benefit from the creative solutions that the offender and the other participants in the session can devise.Whether it is simply performing community service, participating in a sports league, having regular therapy sessions, being required to submit their report card to show improving grades in school, learning a trade or helping in the garden, all solutions are possible and all are specifically appropriate and particularly beneficial. That is why an increasing number of people believe in the Restorative Justice process, because they themselves, within a safe and serious support structure, are participating in the creation of solutions for their community.
Restorative Justice then, far from seeking to replace the regular system of Justice, seeks to integrate into the existing social structure and utilize all of its elements to most effectively and efficiently benefit the entire community. Prison and the Courts will remain necessary, but a lot of individuals will be able to seize an opportunity right away to avoid that path and to follow rather the path back into their community.