Frequently writing and speaking about youth justice issues, especially restorative justice, has at times seemingly put me at odds with those who advocate for victims’ rights. Earlier this year I was in Washington, D.C., and met with members of a well-known group that lobbies for juvenile justice reform. They have opposed juvenile life without parole, harsh sentences, and adult transfer, while advocating for community based approaches and rehabilitation efforts to youth who have committed crimes.
As we were discussing my own interest in restorative justice, one of them expressed to me his doubts that those working for victims’ rights could ever work together with those seeking reform of the justice system. I was surprised, since one of the foundations of restorative justice is supposed to be that it is victim centered, and that harm to the victim is what must be addressed first in any attempt to respond to crime.
Last week my column on the resentencing of juveniles who had received life without parole drew a comment from the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (NOVJL). The commenter had a legal argument in opposition to my own view, but more striking, at least to me, was the sentence that asked how I am going to, “support, inform, and not re-traumatize the devastated victims’ families left behind in these horrible crimes.”
I continue to reflect on that comment, and to ponder indeed how I am going to accomplish these goals. In moments of doubt I wonder if they are indeed incompatible. The way in which policies are changed is often adversarial, and such positioning can lend itself to demonization, even the demonization of victims of crime. This goes beyond civility, as important as it may be, to what values we as a society want to embody. I want to help create a society that cares for the needs of everyone affected by crime, most importantly of all the victims and their loved ones. If those needs are ignored then justice is not done.
Many members of NOVJL are in support of Restorative Justice, and their website points out many areas of policy where advocates of both juvenile offenders and victims can come together in agreement. Jennifer Bishop, the leader of the group, in an interview with Youth Radio, said that restorative justice isn’t applicable in cases of murder, since the victim cannot be restored, but also went on to say, “There’s another term — transformative justice — that seeks to transform the experience for both offender and victim. I’m a strong supporter of that.” This approach is about finding ways to transform what has happened, and is not dependent on the offender’s release.
I am heartened by these signs that there is indeed some common ground between those who support victims and those seeking juvenile justice reform. I intend to keep these considerations in mind in my own attempts to bring restorative justice to my community, and to encourage others to do the same.