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Restorative Justice: The Transformative Power of an Alternative

This is part of a series examining Restorative Justice in schools and communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.


Imagine that you come home one day and find that your home has been burglarized. Your mind is racing. You take inventory of what was stolen. You no longer feel safe in your own home. You want to know who did this to you and why. You wonder how you will replace what was stolen and if you will ever feel safe in your home again. Your neighbors know this happened and they are worried for their own safety, wondering if their homes will be targeted next.

This experience, with all the questions, needs, and uncertainties, is unfortunately too common. Most often the criminal justice system is activated after such a criminal act and law enforcement, lawyers, and judges become involved. Through the court process, people who have been victimized by crime and violence often do not have their needs met or their questions answered. Programs that use the concept of Restorative Justice are an alternative means to repair the harm caused by crime and violence.

Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that requires us as a society to think of criminal acts or disciplinary incidents on school grounds as a violation of relationships rather than a violation of laws or rules. Restorative Justice requires us to understand the root cause of an individual's actions and then work with that individual to support him or her to make it right, to be held truly accountable. Crime and conflict often arises out of unmet needs. Restorative Justice works to address everyone's needs as a community to prevent future violence.

Restorative Justice programs do not rely on punishment. There is emerging research that shows that punitive measures such as arrest, incarceration, and suspensions and expulsions do not work. Studies show that just one court appearance quadruples the odds a student will drop out of school. Seventy five percent of youth leaving locked facilities nationally are rearrested, indicating that incarceration does not lead to less crime. The data shows that punitive measures in fact have a negative effect on youth and do not prevent future crime. Further, punitive strategies are used disproportionately against youth of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and youth with disabilities.

At the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), we use a practice called Restorative Community Conferencing to address crimes committed by young people under the age of 18. The practice of community conferencing is derived from the Maori people in New Zealand, and has been adopted by the entire country of New Zealand as the model response to the majority of juvenile crime instead of formal juvenile justice system processing. CCEJ's program allows youth who have been arrested to avoid the negative effects of going through the formal court system by participating in a Restorative Community Conference. If the youth, who are referred by the Long Beach Police Department, L.A. County Probation and the courts, successfully completes the program, they will not have a juvenile record.

The Restorative Community Conferencing process consists of a face-to-face meeting between the youth and the person who they have harmed, as well as the family members and additional support people for each individual. For example, after the burglary described above, the people whose house was burglarized would have the opportunity to meet in person with the youth who burglarized them. They would get the chance to express how the burglary impacted them, ask questions of the youth, receive restitution, and have a say in how the youth will be held accountable to make sure he/she will not do something like that again. Additionally, the homeowners' neighbors would have the opportunity to participate so that some of their fears could be put to rest.

Restorative Community Conferencing has remarkable results in reducing the rate of re-offending, and the process is truly powerful and healing for all those involved. One youth participant, who committed a battery against an older woman, told me, "I never had the opportunity to say sorry to someone for what I did in my life. I appreciate this program for that so much." And this is the truth in most circumstances. Through the formal court system the "offender" and the "victim" are generally told not to talk with one another. They form perceptions of each other that are not based in reality, and they are rarely given the opportunity to see the humanity on both sides. Through the practice of conferencing, people are able to truly listen to one another, are given the space to heal, and to decide together upon a solution that is satisfactory to everyone.

Restorative Justice Practices can also be used on school campuses. Currently CCEJ works with five schools -- Gompers Middle School, Markham Middle School, and Augustus Hawkins High School in South L.A.; Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, and Reid Continuation High School in Long Beach -- and their school-based Restorative Justice coordinators to implement these practices school wide. When CCEJ works with schools, we use the Restorative Justice practice of sitting in a circle, both for building community and preventing conflict, as well as an alternative to suspension and expulsion. Students and staff at our school sites are now so committed to the circle process that often our Restorative Justice coordinators are asked to call a circle to prevent a future fight by the very people who are threatening to fight one another! CCEJ has been successful in using these practices in schools, and has reduced suspensions at the school sites, prevented numerous incidents of harm, and overall created school climates that are more positive for all members of the school community.

Both practices, in the schools and as an alternative to the criminal justice system, are strengths-based. This means not only relying on the strength and resources that exist in communities already, but also working with the person who caused harm to develop a positive skill or strength. This allows them to increase their self-esteem as well as give back to the community. We have helped youth enroll in gospel choirs, create anti-bullying posters, and find counseling services and employment. Engaging youth in positive activities, helping them find their path in life, as well as assisting them to be financially secure is a proven method to preventing future crime.

Restorative Justice has had remarkable success throughout the nation, and right here locally. It empowers youth and community with the knowledge that there is another way. We do not have to be punitive or seek revenge, nor do we have to rely on law enforcement or the courts to address the root causes of violence and heal the harm caused. As a community we have the ability to address conflict in creative ways that bring all those with a stake in the incident to the same table.

About the Author

Alicia Virani, J.D., is a Restorative Justice Program Specialist at The California Conference for Equality and Justice. Alicia graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a J.D. and a M.A. in Urban Planning.
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