Moving America Forward

Restorative Justice Programs That Work

September 14, 2018
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Restorative Justice Programs That Work
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Restorative justice emphasizes communication over incarceration. Photo by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty Images
A wave of initiatives that emphasize communication over incarceration is changing how we think about punishing youth. Here are some leading the charge.

This past July, two men were brutally beaten while heading back to their hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Four men were charged with the attack, but instead of pushing for a harsh jail sentence, the two victims proposed something else: a face-to-face meeting with the perpetrators.  

The idea is based on a process called restorative justice. In a country where criminal justice often involves harsh penalties like jail time and steep fines, restorative justice asks everyone impacted by a conflict or a crime to develop a shared understanding of both its root causes and effects. Restorative justice considers the harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned parties on how to make amends.

In the U.S., restorative justice takes a number of forms. In many cases, offenders and victims face one another and discuss the reasons underpinning a crime and also work on potential solutions. But other models of restorative justice might include roundtable discussions or community involvement.

And it’s not just for courts: Restorative justice programs are also being used in schools to keep students from being suspended, which many say is ineffective and more like a vacation than anything particularly edifying.

Here are a few examples of restorative justice programs around the nation.

A Jury of Your (Teen) Peers

In the isolated waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, teenagers are trained for 30 hours before being given an opportunity to help fellow teens, as part of a program administered by the Center for Court Innovation in New York.

For offenders between the ages of 10 and 18, low-level offenses such as bullying, assault or theft — cases that could easily land in a family or criminal court — are heard by a youth judge, a peer jury, a tribunal, an adult judge or some combination therein.

While the model is a flexible one, the end goals are much the same. According to the court’s training manual, “Youths have a primary role in presenting and hearing cases and the youth court’s fundamental approach should be restorative in nature, focusing on positive peer interactions, allowing the respondent to redress any harm done to the community and providing opportunities for positive youth development for both members and respondents.”

The success of the program has led to the introduction of youth courts in every NYC borough. Mayor Bill de Blasio endorses the program. “Young people must have confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said in a recent press release. “That starts by understanding how it works and by seeing themselves as a part of the administration of justice.”

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Men As Peacemakers facilitates open conversations between men to acknowledge that “[abuse] is a male problem” and encourage healthy behavior for youth offenders.Photo by Kerri Setch/Getty Images

A “Whole School” Approach

Three years ago, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a young black student threw Skittles at another student, landing him in jail.

His arrest was just one of many such incidents within the Jefferson Parish public school system that penalized black youth more frequently and more severely than their white peers, and it resulted in a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the school district.

As a result of the arrest and subsequent national attention, the school district decided to implement a new discipline plan featuring restorative justice, where students have the right to request a restorative circle before they are suspended. This is called a “whole school” approach, where anyone who is impacted by an incident — teachers, students and even parents — sit in a circle and express themselves in a nonjudgmental forum. At the end, participants come up with a way to address the problem or harm the incident caused.

At a school in Marrero, a city inside Jefferson Parish, suspensions in one school dropped by 56 percent, according to CityLab. Other schools in the district that have embraced a similar approach have also seen declines in suspension rates.

Once Offenders, Now Volunteers

Instead of locking up bullies, why not try talking to them instead?

That’s the goal of L.A.’s Teen Court, an intervention program which provides selected juvenile offenders with the opportunity to be questioned, judged and sentenced by a jury of their peers.

David S. Wesley, presiding judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court, thinks that having youth offenders plead their case to a jury of their peers, is a much more effective way of preventing future skirmishes with the law than traditional punitive measures.

“Punishment was not punishment,” Wesley said in a Center for Court Innovation podcast, explaining the basics of the court’s SHADES (Stop Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students) restorative justice program. “It was what we could do to make sure the minor [didn’t] get in trouble again.”

The Teen Court approach differs from that of New York’s Center for Court Innovation, where the victim of the crime might be involved in the restorative justice process. But both models appear to be effective.

“We know anecdotally that our recidivism rates are very, very low,” Wesley said. “What ends up happening is that after their [sentencing], they come back [and volunteer as jurors].”

Men As Peacemakers

It’s estimated that one in three women have experienced some form of violence by a partner in the U.S., and one in four have been severely abused by a significant other.

And despite the fact that domestic violence against women is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, many men do nothing to stop it.

That’s the goal of Men As Peacemakers: to reframe the narrative of healthy male behavior for youth offenders.

The Duluth, Minnesota-based nonprofit focuses its efforts on reducing commercial sexual exploitation and on domestic violence restorative programs. The group uses a “circle process,” rooted in traditional practices of Native American tribes, in helping facilitate discussions about problems with race, equity and education.

According to Men As Peacemakers, the purpose of their restorative justice program is to give youths a positive male role model to follow and “to acknowledge that [abuse] is a male problem.”

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