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Restorative justice holds promise of deeper healing, lower long-term costs

by Jon Davis ~ 2016 MLC Annual Meeting Edition ~ Stateline Midwest »
An alternative approach is available to states and communities seeking to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, and their attendant price tags. Restorative justice is a victim-centered recognition that crime is not just a violation of law, but is an action against people — that someone has been victimized. It creates a community-based process during which victims might confront perpetrators, and all parties negotiate restitution aimed at healing personal and community wounds.
Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, outlined the process for legislators during a public policy roundtable discussion at the 71st Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
There are four basic approaches to restorative justice:
• Victim-offender mediation, in which victims may confront a perpetrator directly or through mediators.
• Group conferencing, which includes support people for both the victim and the perpetrator, along with others from the community.
• The use of “circles” of people — much like group conferencing, but often with wider community participation to create an agreed-upon way to address the harm caused by the perpetrator.
• “Other” approaches similar to those above, which likewise aim to address the harm.
Victims have the opportunity — but not an obligation — to participate in this process.
“There is lots of empirical evidence that this can be highly effective” in promoting genuine healing and in reducing recidivism rates, which creates big savings since incarceration rates drop, Umbreit said to legislators.
Under current justice systems, he said, offender accountability means taking the punishment. Under restorative justice, accountability means taking responsibility and action to repair the harm to victims.
He referred to this criminal justice model as a “back to basics” movement that aims to heal the personal and community wounds caused by crime, adding that it can be deployed anywhere in the justice system’s time line, from pre- or post-trial to pre-sentencing to probation.
The Ontario city of Kitchener was the first community to begin a restorative justice program; it began by working with juvenile, nonviolent offenses. Restorative justice programs now exist in all 50 states, and at least 31 states have references to this model in their law. Colorado is the first U.S. state to provide a sustainable funding stream for restorative justice programs, he said. (A 2013 law, HB 13-1254, sets a $10 surcharge on offender fees to fund pilot projects and research on the value of restorative justice, as well as the position of state restorative justice coordinator.)
School systems are increasingly looking into and starting restorative justice programs, too, Umbreit said.
Manitoba MLA Andrew Swan, a former justice minister who is now the opposition’s justice critic, asked how governments can “market” restorative justice to victims and convince people to be part of the restorative-circle process.
One very effective technique, Umbreit said in response, is to highlight positive comments from former skeptics of the process, and then begin to roll out the restorative justice model with mid-level felonies.
Simply addressing low-level crime just isn’t “cost effective” in trying to reduce the expense of incarcerating repeat offenders, he added. “Restorative justice is more in the tradition of ‘tough love’,?” he said.
Umbreit recommended that governments applying for restorative justice funding pursue grants of two to three years, and then develop a business plan that includes a cost-benefit analysis.