Legal Ethics

Changing the Dialogue Through Restorative Justice

Restorative JusticeWhat if we could develop programs that would reduce crime, keep at-risk children in school, reduce the burden on criminal courts and prisons, and involve communities in the process? Sound too good to be true? A number of court systems, schools and community organizations have established restorative justice programs throughout Illinois that are doing just that.

Restorative justice, according the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, is “an emerging philosophy of justice that, with increasing frequency, is being used to guide justice system responses all over the world.” At its heart, restorative justice is a flexible approach that focuses on reconciling the needs of victims, offenders and the community while holding offenders accountable for their actions and for repairing harm done to the offender, victims or survivors, and to the community.

This is not a new concept. Restorative justice is based in the philosophies of many early indigenous societies that were non-hierarchically structured. In such societies, incidents were resolved without formal justice systems. Instead, an emphasis was placed on correcting the imbalance the offender had caused the victim and by extension the collective society.

Justice: Retribution or Resolution

In contrast to the traditional justice system, which relies almost exclusively on retribution through the court system and incarceration, modern day restorative justice seeks to restore harmony among groups and individuals, and to restore both the offender, the victim and their families to their highest level of functioning and potential. Depending on the setting and the conflict, resolution techniques may include peace rooms or circles (spaces or groups in which to discuss particular issues, facilitate understanding, and heal broken relationships, with an emphasis on respect, equality and consensus-based decision-making), restorative chats (smaller and less formal discussions aimed at achieving a resolution), counseling, mediation and peer juries.

According to a 2012 white paper by the Adler School of Professional Psychology Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice and the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, the United States justice system is overly reliant on harsh incarceration with questionable effectiveness. It notes that in 1980, approximately 200,000 people in the United States were under some form of correctional supervision whereas today, that number is close to seven million. “This increase has disproportionately affected poor urban communities of color, where large percentages of the population have been incarcerated. Since most who are incarcerated are eventually released, poor urban communities experience a virtual revolving door from neighborhood to prison and back. This cycle of incarceration and re-entry provides further challenges to the stability of neighborhoods already struggling with poverty, violence, and disinvestment.

Increasingly, jurisdictions in the United States are using the philosophy of restorative justice to guide both juvenile and adult justice system decision making. Here in Illinois, the language of balanced and restorative justice now appears in the purpose and policy statement of Illinois’ revised Juvenile Court Act. Further, schools are adopting restorative justice practices to reduce violence, keep students in the classrooms, and retain quality teachers. One study showed that a 1% increase in high school graduation rates saves approximately $1.4 billion in costs associated with incarceration.

Restorative Justice in Schools

A leader in introducing restorative principles in schools, Umoja Student Development Corporation, is a not-for profit that works with low-income schools to encourage students’ success. Among their other programs, they started a restorative justice program in 2009 at Manley High School on the West Side of Chicago, which has since expanded to four other high schools. Their goals is to help launch the program and coach students and faculty in restorative concepts with the eventual goal of having the program be self-sustaining within 3-5 years.

Ilana Zafran Walden, Chief Operating Officer of Umoja, says the challenge in each school is helping to create a restorative culture, rather than simply thinking of restorative justice as a consequence to be applied when things go wrong. They encourage having staff, teachers and students to use community circles and team-building as part of a regular planning process. For example, administration may use it to help build relationships among teachers at the beginning of the year, or a teacher might choose to start a Monday morning off by having their students share what happened over the weekend. A class might be given an assignment to draft personal peace pledges, or to identify restorative language.

“If we build a strong community through proactive use of restorative ideas, the conflicts tend to decrease. Over time, they use the peace room for resolving conflicts less frequently.” She noted that a restorative culture has its challenges. “It involves some additional work for staff and teachers, because it’s easier and faster to punish a student or not talk about a conflict that it is to work through it. Once a teacher has been involved in a peace circle where they are given an opportunity for their views to be heard, they become supporters.

Walden said that measurement of progress can be a challenge, but some improvements are clear-cut. “Since we first started our restorative justice work at Manley High School, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by almost 30% and the drop-out rate has decreased by 87%.”

Cook County Adult Offenders Program

While restorative justice is increasingly used in school settings and in juvenile court settings, it isn’t just for the young. Here in Cook County, a one-year pilot program is being developed with the backing of Chief Justice Timothy C. Evans that would divert approximately 100 non-violent adult offenders or low-level arrestees to approved restorative justice programs. When an offender agrees to participate, he or she will meet with staff and volunteers to initiate the restorative justice process. At its conclusion, each participant signs a restorative agreement stating in detail how they have agreed to repair the harm that their actions created. A judge would then make the determination whether or not to avoid or set aside a conviction. The process would yield two primary benefits: avoiding the cost to taxpayers of imprisoning a detainee (currently $143 day) and allowing the participant (rather than sitting in an overcrowded prison) to be able to work on personal growth and development, often with the aid of counseling, career or substance abuse programs.

Getting Involved

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an introductory restorative justice workshop given by the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University, designed to give interested groups and individuals a chance to get a feel for some techniques used in peace circles and restorative chats. An experienced facilitator or “circle keeper” walked the participants through exercises using a set of agreed-upon rules and active listening to identify commonalities, achieve consensus and solve problems. Guided visualization and personal stories allowed us to recognize that many of us were sharing similar life challenges. The passing of a “talking piece” ensured better listening and no interruptions. While our group’s emotions were surely not running as high as they would have been in a real conflict, we were able to get a small sense for how the process works.

A number of organizations offer information, training, and other ways for attorneys and others to get involved in restorative justice, including The John Marshall Law School’s Restorative Justice Project, Umoja Student Development Corporation’s Restorative Justice Model, Alternatives Balance and Restorative Justice Program, Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, and Community Justice for Youth Institute.

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