Reflections and Understanding

Dee Ann Newell, M.A., Executive Director of Arkansas Voices and Senior Fellow, Soros Foundation, speaking at the White House convening of the American Bar Foundation, Aug. 20, 2013, on research on children of prisoners.

Dee Ann Newell, M.A., Executive Director of Arkansas Voices and Senior Fellow, Soros Foundation, speaking at the White House convening of the American Bar Foundation, Aug. 20, 2013, on research on children of prisoners.

My Reflections and Understanding of Restorative Justice

By Dee Ann Newell, M.A.

After more than two decades of working and supporting adults and youths during their incarceration, I was excited to learn more about Restorative Justice (RJ). In the context of what I was witnessing, RJ offered greater value as a more meaningful substitute for the impersonal and ineffective criminal justice system we currently endure. Our overworked judges, crowded courtrooms, anonymous public defense lawyers who see their impoverished clients only a few moments before proceedings, the pressure to plea, even when innocent, all suggest the current procedures of our criminal justice system are tired and worn.

Within the correctional systems we have erected, I have seen a dehumanizing process that is well-articulated, removing all decision-making, a most human trait, stealing a person’s sense of identity, leaving only their criminality, breaking family ties and parent-child relationships, often leaving the individual to survive the incarceration with coping skills which are not the prosocial coping mechanisms they will need to redeem them-selves once free.

In 2009, when I worked with Howard Zehr who is often called the “grandfather of Restorative Justice” on the book, What Will Happen to Me? I learned more about RJ and its potential to replace the punitive system of incarceration and pun-ishment. The guiding principles of RJ do not include intent to punish or to seek retribution as a deterrent to crime. RJ instead offers a community-based inter-vention, sometimes with the help of the courts, which addresses accountability, harm to the victim(s), and a responsive action or series of actions agreed to by the victim and the offender as an act of restoration for the harm done. This approach includes important elements no longer visible in our criminal justice system: The engagement of the offender in reflection on the harm done and the specific impact on the victim. The process involves the victim and the needs of the victim for resolution, and a community that supports the consensus of both offender and victim as an act of restitution.

As a developmental psychologist, I am especially appreciative of the focus on the real and not the abstraction of the crime. In my work with people who are incarcerated, I have been amazed at the lack of attention in a “correctional” system where no one talks with the person about their crime. I surveyed more than 200 people within the correctional system and no could tell me about having had a conversation with anyone who was a part of the system and trained to do so, concerning their actions and the effects on their victims. Most of those I spoke with sincerely wanted to talk about their crime with a caring person. How can we speak of rehabilitation without a mention of the harm done, and certainly, no mention of a specific way of restoring to the victim what was lost, ranging from an injury, a trauma infecting the per-spective of the victim, and how the offender could possibly make amends in a manner meaningful to the victim? RJ offers hope, spiritual renewal without straying into making the individual endure other harsh consequences while insuring the victim’s needs are met.

What RJ is not is forgiveness, although there are many examples via victim-offender mediation, a specific Restorative Justice process, where the indi-viduals forge a meaningful connection and forgiveness occurs. Having searched a lifetime to understand forgiveness, the goal of RJ is something beyond for-giveness. It is a new perspective on crime and a new goal for our approach to harm.

“Restorative justice is a bold and thought-provoking innovation that has engaged the energies and excited the hopes of criminal justice reformers throughout the world over the last several decades. And yet, while it has achieved outstanding results in thousands of programs, it has remained a marginal development because it has failed to articulate a theory and set of practice applicable to serious crimes and adult offenders. Unless it can do so, it may very well remain on the sidelines, ‘doomed to irrelevance and marginality.’”

In this paragraph, which opens the last chapter of a recent book, Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice: From the Margins to the Mainstream, Ross London – a former judge, prosecutor and public de-fender turned professor – accurately summarizes the state of the field. Fortunately, he argues, it need not and should not remain in this state.

What Restorative Justice offers are not so much new justice practices but a dif-ferent view of crime and a new goal for justice: crime is seen as a source of harm that must be re-paired. Moreover, the essential harm of crime is the loss of trust, on both interpersonal and social levels. What victims and communities need is to have their trust restored. The essential obligation of offenders is to show that they are trustworthy. The purpose of justice should be to encourage this process.

The overriding goal of justice, then, ought to be the restoration of trust. The attempt to achieve this on both personal and social levels, he argues, can provide a unifying umbrella for our response to crime. Rather than replacing other, more traditional goals, it would become the overriding consideration in senten-cing, providing rationales for and limits to the application of goals such as incapacitation and punishment.

Punishment alone, he argues, “is an extraordinarily poor way of restoring trust, either in an offender or in society.” However, it has an important restor-ative role for individuals and society if it is limited, accepted as deserved, and part of a larger strategy aimed at the restoration of trust and relationships.

Criminal justice is, by and large, a ritual of ex-clusion, “a form of symbolic degradation that strips the offender of his mem-bership in the moral community….” But justice also has the potential to become a ritual of inclusion and restoration.

Let me emphasize two major points. First, loss of trust is the fundamental harm of crime, and re-storation of trust is a basic need. In my experience, this rings true in the lives of victims, offenders and communities.

Second, by identifying restoration of trust as the overarching goal of justice, we might be able to pro-vide a realistic and compre- hensive theory of sen-tencing, for all levels of crime. With restoration of trust as the primary goal, we might be able to refocus and incorporate the other widely-embraced and more usual goals of justice.

“The restoration of trust approach integrates con-ventional sentencing theories under the new goal of repairing the harm of crime that applies to all cases,” not just so-called “minor” crimes and cooperative offenders. In this way, restorative justice might move from the margins to the mainstream and realize the potential that it offers.

~Crime, Punishment, and Restorative Justice is published by First Forum Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers (2011).

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