We present an introduction to OAG’s current research project on an alternative justice systems theory known as Restorative Justice. The research is being carried out by Alden Remington, Ben Shackelford, Matt Ryan and Sam Withers, who also authored this blog.
The past several decades have been characterized by a ‘tough-on-crime’ political agenda, which has lead to an unprecedented rise in American incarceration. Today, almost one out of every one hundred adults in America can be found behind bars either in jails or prisons. Correctional facilities across the country are overcrowded with lower level drug, property and immigration offenders constituting much of the newly incarcerated population. High rates of recidivism only make the matter worse. Upon release, about two thirds of those convicted reoffend and are rearrested for new crimes, and a total of about 40% are sentenced to additional prison time within three years of release. U.S. high incarceration and recidivism rates demonstrate that our criminal court process and imprisonment are less than effective in remedying the problem of crime.
Today, the accused are often pressured into accepting plea bargains from prosecutors. Around 90% of the accused plead guilty instead of evoking their constitutional right to a jury trial. Public defenders (who, to be fair, are overworked) appear uncommitted to defendants. Other courtroom actors, including the judge and prosecutor, seem out to get the accused, totally indifferent to the particulars of his/her case. After being rushed through the justice system, those convicted and sentenced frequently feel themselves to be victimized by state. As a result, offenders’ prison sentences seem unjust. This allows inmates to shift blame and guilt away from themselves, and the crimes they committed, unto the uncaring or malicious state. Incarceration itself can make crime worse. When offenders are removed from their communities, their relationships decay. Once released, former inmates often find themselves without the support of friends and loved ones. The stain of a criminal record makes it difficult to find employment, which in turn, makes it harder for ex-convicts to lead law-abiding lives.
Not only are our court system and high levels of incarceration ineffective in addressing the issue of crime, they are also incredibly expensive. Those who have been victimized end up having to pay for offenders’ housing and everyday needs through taxes. In order to prevent future crimes, we require a criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation for offenders and restitution for victims, not just retribution for past offenses. Crime should be examined and addressed as evidence of larger riffs within society, not as single conflicts between random individuals. As such, our criminal justice system should focus on strengthening communal bonds and building a healthier, more inclusive society, rather than simply punishing transgressors.
Restorative justice (RJ) programs may serve as an effective alternative for handling many criminal offences. RJ originated in indigenous communities where conflicts between individuals were handled in a holistic and collaborative manner, instead of a top-down, linear approach. According to this method, crimes are interpreted as unhealthy actions and symptoms of unhealthy relationships. Thus, group arbitration attempted to heal. Today, RJ programs come in many different shapes and sizes, all paying much deference to the impact a criminal offense makes upon victims and the larger community. RJ offers a mediation platform that allows the offender, victim, community members, and government actors a role in arbitrating the conflict. Victims are given the chance to articulate to offenders the ways in which they were hurt by the crime. This is an opportunity that they often are not afforded in our current court process, and one reason why the majority of victims find the current justice system unsatisfactory. After hearing the victim, offenders have to acknowledge the harm they have caused; they cannot escape the impact they have made on victims, and thus are unable to shift the guilt away. Offenders are able to describe their motivations for offending as well as the circumstances surrounding their offense. By giving community members a role in arbitration, the community is able to establish boundaries while also offering support. The community is also made aware of the way in which it might have failed both the victim and offender in allowing the conflict to take place. When community members are active in the adjudication process, offenders face less stigma and have a better chance reintegrating. After victims, offenders and community members have been given the chance to describe what the offense meant to them, the dialogue focuses on restitution. The offender is made responsible for restoring the victim to the best of their abilities. Obviously, this means something different for every crime and every victim.
In order to illustrate how RJ serves as a more effective alternative to our current criminal justice process, we will conclude with an example of one conflict that was successfully resolved through RJ mediation. Several years ago, a fourteen-year-old broke into a neighboring middle-aged woman’s home and stole her VCR. In the resulting mediation, the victim and the offender spoke about the crime in the presence of a mediator for two hours. The conversation allowed for the victim and offender to articulate and learn how the crime impacted one another. The teenager made several apologies and agreed to complete community service. Additionally, the participants decided that the teenager could provide restitution for his crime by paying for the damages to the victim’s home and her stolen VCR, amounting to $200. After the session, the victim reported feeling less fearful and angry after learning more about the teenager and the particulars of his offense. To briefly recapitulate, the offender is not burdened by a criminal record, realizes the impact of his actions, and has a reinforced relationship with his community members. The victim is more satisfied and less fearful, having been given a chance to articulate what the crime meant to her and learn what circumstances motivated the offense. And lastly, community members receive a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issue of crime and how they can work together to prevent future conflict.
The RJ alternative is more malleable and dynamic than our current court process. It benefits from increased intentionality and allows for collaborative participation. Current literature surrounding RJ offers a great deal of evidence that it may be considerably more beneficial for dealing with juvenile offenses than the existing juvenile justice system. For more information about RJ, keep an eye out for the upcoming Our American Generation Restorative Justice magazine and full research report.