Restorative Justice (RJ) is a practice that redefines the nature of crime, wrongdoing, violation and conflict. Restorative Justice views crime and wrongdoing in a social or collective context rather than as an isolated act or violation. Criminal offenses arise from -- and in turn foment -- imbalance in a community. Rather than view offensive acts as primarily a violation of laws, codes, statutes or rules, RJ stems from indigenous roots that view offenses as crises that disrupt the web of relationships in a community.
Reparations that are brainstormed in RJ arise from both the harmed party and the person who did the harm, and are designed to directly restore the harmed party personally—both materially and psychologically. In contrast, the punitive model often renders a mechanical and impersonal verdict and punishment that do not often serve or heal the community directly.
RJ is an Alternative to Jail
The incarceration rate in the United States is second to none globally. The jailing of U.S. children now occurs at ever younger ages. Depending on the severity of the crime, young offenders are often subject to the adult criminal justice system in the absence of restorative interventions. This path may lead to marginalized lives, chronic imprisonment and often premature death. Reaching young people early is more successful and cost effective than coping with hardened adult offenders. RJ focuses on generating empathy, accountability, empowerment and reintegration of youth into the community.
The Conventional Punitive Approach
The conventional model of criminal justice views offenses as an affront to the state; crime is a violation of rules and laws that is both prosecuted and punished by the state. In the conventional litigious model, the victims of crime have little or no voice. Their experience, their pain, is little noted during trial and sentencing, despite what network TV dramas portray. Offenders are then sentenced to punishment far from their families and the community that was harmed by their actions. Also, the community at large has little or no voice in this process and receives miniscule direct benefit from punishment. Indeed, the community is taxed to pay for exorbitant incarceration costs. At length, the offender is released from jail back into the community. Often, he or she becomes hardened while locked up and frequently offends again. In the U.S., incarceration breeds recidivism at a rate of 70%. (1)
Restorative Justice breaks this cycle with a very different view of crime and wrongdoing. RJ is an alternative to conventional practices of judicial punishment, probation and incarceration, both for minor and major offenses.
The Community Group Conferencing Model
The Community Group Conferencing model brings together:
- the offender, or “person of concern” (PoC);
- parents of the PoC;
- support people for the PoC, such as advocates or counselors;
- the harmed party or parties and their support people;
- community members.
All participants in a CGC tell their own stories about the offense and its impact upon them. Each participant listens deeply to each other’s stories, without interruption. This deep listening often fosters empathy and forgiveness among participants and opens the door to consider ways to heal the tear in the web of relationships. After all the harms have been expressed, the whole group fashions a creative way for the PoC to repair the harm. Once an agreement is reached on how to repair the harm, the PoC has an obligation to fulfill that agreement.
Community Group Conferencing adds the powerful third force of community participation. Community members may be drawn from the ranks of human service providers, law enforcement, business, the faith community and/or interested parties whose passion and commitment are to support youth. Community members often act as mentors who lend additional assistance to the sustainability of a restitution agreement. They often help to ensure that the offender is knit back into the web of community.
Outcomes of Restorative Justice:
RJ engages the person of concern (offender) with the actual harmed
party to repair the harms, not to punish for the harms.
Example: A 12 year-old boy was met by an older group of gang members when he got off the school bus near his home. The older youths threatened to beat him senseless if he did not snatch the purse of an elderly woman in an adjacent parking lot. Terrified, the young man approached the woman and grabbed her purse. The woman held on to her purse for dear life. The boy gave it a hard yank and she fell to the ground and broke her shoulder. When the police and ambulance arrived, the gang members were nowhere to be found. The 12 year-old boy alone was booked for the crime.
In RJ, this young man tearfully told the story of how frightened he had been. He knew what he did was wrong; he was very apologetic. At the time, he couldn’t see another choice. He was horrified at the injury he had caused the victim and mortified that his beloved grandmother would no longer speak to him.
Next, the harmed party told her story. Her broken shoulder had required surgery. The recovery was long and very painful. She couldn’t dress herself or cook for herself. This event robbed her of the joy of independent living. Although she was insured, she still had to meet the expensive deductible. Everything changed for her that day.
In the RJ process, the group discussed what this 12 year-old might have done differently. What if, instead of snatching the woman’s purse, he had asked her for help in dealing with the gang members? What if they had gone together to the nearby restaurant and called the police? Is it possible that the real masterminds may have been apprehended?
In the RJ conference, the boy agreed to do odd jobs and yard work to pay the woman for her insurance deductible. He also agreed to perform five hours of community service in a nursing home for elders. He worked doggedly all summer to repay the deductible. At the nursing home, he was so grateful to be well-received by elders that he performed not five but 45 hours of community service. He read to elders and played cards with them. His relationship with his grandmother was restored. He came out of that experience with renewed dignity and a fresh commitment to think before he acts. And the harmed party was comforted to know that this boy would never be a danger to her again. He was not a monster who needed to be locked away, but someone willing to right a serious wrong and be a positive contributor to the community.
RJ builds community relations.
Example: Four young men broke into a vehicle at a car repair shop and
stole a radar detector and stereo. They were apprehended a few blocks
from the scene of the crime.
There were 20 people in this RJ conference—the young men, their parents
and a few siblings, along with the harmed party and a community member.
The shop owner was happy to participate in RJ. He had been in trouble as
a juvenile and he wanted to help these young men turn their lives around.
The father of one of the offenders wept as he described the impact this
crime had on him. He hadn’t raised his son to be a common criminal; he
worked hard to provide his children with a better life than he had. But, alas,
he recently lost his job. His dignity was stripped away, both by being out of
work and by the thoughtless behavior of his son, which reflected so poorly
on him as a father.
Hearing this, the shop owner offered the father a job on the spot. The four
young men agreed to community service cleaning the shop and helping
with car repairs. The young men worked very hard to fulfill their agreement.
The following summer, the shop owner hired them. Four years later, all
had completed high school and were gainfully employed. Now, they remain
his loyal customers.
A year after this conference, one of the facilitators took her car to this
shop. She asked the owner if he remembered her. He said, “Oh yes! I
will never forget you. Since I participated in Restorative Justice, my
business has quadrupled!” All the relatives and friends of these young men
now brought their cars to this shop. The tear in the fabric of community
was repaired and new relationships were born.
RJ requires the Person of Concern to take accountability.
In RJ, the person of concern must take accountability for his or her actions. This action goes far beyond a simple guilty plea. The PoC must tell a complete story about the crime—what inspired this action?; what were you thinking?; what did you do?; how did you do it?; whom do you think you harmed and how did you harm them?; what consequences have you undergone since the incident?; how do you view yourself since this incident? Anyone unwilling to explore and examine their actions in such depth is not a good candidate for Restorative Justice.
Some detractors of Restorative Justice claim the process is “soft on crime.” Some have called it “Hug a Thug.” However, if such detractors had to sit in a circle of often 20 people, including the people they have harmed, and deliver such an honest and complete narrative of their own misdeeds, they would soon learn that this process takes immense courage—moral courage—on the part of the person of concern. In RJ, denial of the crime is not an option.
RJ has improved academic performance by 31%.
A surprising number of harmed parties request that the person of concern
complete their education. Since we began our work with troubled youth in
2008, 31% have made and kept agreements with educational outcomes.
Some agreed to stay in high school until graduation; some have agreed to
obtain a GED. A preponderance of our clients are now college-bound.
RJ quells the fears of the harmed party, fostering healing.
Example: Two high school boys plundered unlocked cars in their
neighborhood on the heels of an all-nighter of guzzling energy drinks and
playing Grand Theft Auto. They raked in iPods, expensive sun glasses, cell
phones and loose money. They were not caught that night. Emboldened,
they decided to continue their plundering after school the next day—in
One of the car owners peered out her window and saw these youths in her
car. She called the police and they were apprehended immediately.
Although this wife and mother felt relieved in the short term, she and
her husband began to have second thoughts. What if these youths were gang members who would return to retaliate against her and her family?
After all, they knew where she lived. The family began to keep their curtains drawn and their doors and windows locked. Their 10 year-old daughter began to have nightmares about boogey-men coming to get her. This family was consumed with fear, until they were contacted to participate in RJ.
In the RJ session, this family learned that the person of concern in their circle was not a hardened criminal or member of a gang. He was an honors student, captain of the basketball team and had a life goal to be a five-star chef. When the father in the harmed party learned of the PoC’s culinary gifts, he asked the youth to bake him a good pecan pie. The mother requested an apple pie and the young girl wanted a cherry pie. The final restitution agreement required the person of concern to bake these three pies and to bring them to the family home along with his father, who came bearing two pints of Hagen Das ice cream. The two families shared pie and ice cream and got to know one another as neighbors. The little girl had no more nightmares and the family opened their curtains back onto a more friendly world.
RJ enhances community resiliency and cohesion.
Example: A young art student had transferred to a different high school
because it had a better art program. This Latino youth could no longer take
the school bus to his new school. He had to catch the city bus at the
nearby mall. There was a new bus driver on this route, who routinely
passed him by, making him late for school for a full week. He was now in
trouble for being consistently tardy for his first period class. The fifth time
the bus driver whizzed past him, this youth poured out his rage in a very
colorful display of graffiti on the bus bench. The mall’s security guard
apprehended him immediately and filed a police report. The youth felt he
was being discriminated against because he was Latino. His view of adults
and authority figures began to sour considerably.
In this case, the city and the bus company were the harmed parties; it was
city property that had been defaced. In the process of organizing this RJ
conference, we decided to invite the mayor and the director of the bus
company. As the young man told his story, both officials realized that this
youth was also a harmed party. While misplaced into destructive actions,
his anger and hurt were justified. His previously positive relationship with
his new high school had been damaged by the driver’s behavior.
While the youth took responsibility for poor choices about how to express
his anger and the damage he did, the officials also took responsibility for
harm that had been done to him. They taught him how to report bus drivers
who ignore him and drive past him. The mayor apologized to the young
man for the behavior of the bus driver. They vowed to fire anyone who did
that to him again. The mayor also let the PoC know how much youth
graffiti costs the City of Santa Fe every year—upwards of a quarter of a
million dollars! That was more than enough to build a new youth
community center over time, if only the graffiti would stop.
The youth agreed to put the word out on the street among his peers to stop
plastering neighborhoods and businesses with graffiti. He also agreed to
spend 20 hours helping the Parks and Recreation Department paint new
signs. But this resolution was hardly one-sided. He left that conference
feeling great satisfaction that he was fully heard by the mayor and director
of the bus company. They had negotiated a man-to-man agreement.
Types of cases appropriate for RJ
While the scenarios described above involve low-level offenses, Common Ground has successfully facilitated RJ cases that involved very serious crimes, such as assault upon a police officer, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping and assault with the intent to kill, as well as severe cyber-bullying that nearly led to the victim’s suicide. We have resolved cases of highly publicized multi-year burglary rings, vehicular assault and severe property crimes.
Restorative Justice can be successfully applied to most forms of crime and can succeed with both youth and adults. The primary pre-requisites for success are the willingness of the offender to take accountability and the willingness of the harmed party to voluntarily participate.
Our highly-trained Restorative Justice team has a proven track record and we perform fully 25% of our cases in Spanish.
RJ Cost-Benefit Analysis
- Has reduced recidivism 81.5% over seven years
- Has saved Santa Fe County and the State of New Mexico $500,000 to $1.5 Million in incarceration costs alone (does not include court costs, legal fees or lost productivity over a lifetime!).
About Common Ground
Common Ground has provided Restorative Justice to Santa Fe since 2008, serving the Juvenile Probation Office of Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) and the City of Santa Fe.
Restorative Justice Training
Common Ground provides a 40-hour Restorative Justice training to individuals and agencies who wish to launch RJ in their communities. This training carries a pre-requisite of an approved 40- Basic Mediation training. Please visit the training page of this website for details.
(1) Dreams from the Monster Factory, Sunny Schwartz, Scribner, 2010