I get in trouble sometimes when I talk (or write) about certain things. Whether the topic is prisoners’ rights, restorative justice, brain science, the treatment of juveniles by the system, or some similar issue, some people just become angry when they hear my opinion.I have variously been accused of ignoring victims, not holding offenders accountable, not understanding the complex realities, and not being focused on justice.
This is good feedback for me, because I am interested in all of these things, and most particularly in justice. If we can meet the need for justice, these other issues will be addressed. Early on in my masters classes in conflict management we discussed various types of justice. Procedural, distributive, restorative, reparative, social, and other types of justice are all important in different contexts, and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile conflicting views of justice and fairness.
Should the poor go to prison more frequently than wealthy people who commit a similar crime? We may agree this is unfair, but at the same time we want to respect a defendant’s right to a good defense. Similarly, should those who cannot pay fines and restitution continue to be confined as punishment? We want something to happen to them. We want to see a balancing of the scales. Where is the victim in this process?
In Athens, Ga., where I live, the only solutions for juveniles that could remotely be considered restorative have been restitution agreements. When the kid, or more accurately the parents, has money, a check is written and the kid leaves. The victim is often satisfied to have his property restored. This is better than sending the young person to jail, perhaps, but I wonder if he learns anything useful from the experience. The poor kid stays in jail, doing time as a way to pay his debt. I am certain he is not going to learn much in the way of what we want him to learn. By going to jail he is more likely, statistically, to be rearrested. The reasons for this are complicated, but one factor is that his peer group becomes his fellow criminals.
Fundamentally, we have to decide what we want offenders to do, and why we want them to do it. I realized this crucial point after reading Marshall Rosenberg’s seminal book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life. He points out that we can get people to change their behavior in several ways. We can try to reason with them, we can threaten them, we can entice them, etc. The problem with these methods is that they require us to continue to monitor the perpetrator. As soon as the threat or enticement is removed, or they think that there is no consequence to their actions, we lose our influence. The best source of change is internal. If they want to act differently, then they will. This seems simple, but how do we get there?
The approach to a lot of juvenile crime over the past several years has been based on punishments, threats and incarceration. Fortunately, mostly for economic reasons, this has begun to slowly change. We have a window of opportunity to reexamine our motivations and our strategies for improving juvenile justice approaches. We can also reexamine what we mean when we invoke “justice.”
I am convinced that restorative justice is the solution. It focuses first on the needs of those harmed, goes on to address the person who has done harm, then looks at those affected by the harm. The primary difference between restorative justice and the current system is that the offense is against the victim, not the government. The victim is at the center of the response, and the victim’s needs drive the process.
Restorative justice also looks at what needs to happen with the offender. He must be held accountable, and this accountability is ideally found within. It is born of connecting with those he has harmed, and seeing for himself what his actions have led to. This is not a pipe dream, but has been demonstrated to work. It has lowered recidivism, increased victim satisfaction with the justice process, and created safer communities.
It does all of these things and also provides the offender with what he needs to be restored to the community, and it provides others affected with the help they need. Communities, offenders and victims are all restored. Giving help to these parties simultaneously is possible. Those in favor of victims’ rights and those concerned about prisoners are not irrevocably in opposition.
I have come to believe that justice can be achieved, and that it can be had by all parties. Restorative justice is a way to make that happen.