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Advocating for restorative justice before a legislative body: How to make the case

June 25, 2009

Russ told the committee how he had contact with the young man who killed his son. First the contact occurred through letters then ultimately Russ agreed to go to prison to meet the offender.  Russ spoke passionately about the impact the offender’s letter(s) had on his family. It made all the difference in the world to the family, and particularly Russ’s wife. The meeting in prison was unusual in that it was filmed, a fact that rarely if ever is authorized in a California prison. 

The legislative committee listened closely to Russ’s testimony, many of the legislators and staff looking at a mural of Jeremy we set up near the front of the hearing room. Often at legislative hearings victims of crime will bring in photos of their loved ones who were murdered or they will wear a photo button with the likeness of their loved one. Russ’s words were perhaps not what legislators expected. Russ spoke of forgiveness. He spoke of restorative justice and the importance of it. Offender accountability, he told the legislators, was a good thing and did have meaning to him and his family. The offender, Stephen, was willing to join Russ as he has spent increasing amounts of time talking to young people about the dangers of driving while intoxicated.

Together through the use of video Russ and Stephen have spoken to a great number of school aged children about making good choices in life. It is a powerful witness given Stephen is currently behind bars. Russ is hoping to do more with Stephen after he is released, although the time of his release is not set.

TIPS: when you testify in support of restorative justice

As you review my testimony, consider what makes for a good witness when testifying. I have in the legislative advocacy arena for 25 years, both as a lobbyist and as a staff member to three legislators. From this experience, I will give you my perspective and I will walk you through the process. In this case, testifying on AB 114 about restorative justice it was important to make a case succinctly for restorative justice.

While this legislation was intended largely for nonviolent juvenile offenders it was important for us to context. With our testimony we provided a glimpse of what could be. Both Russ and I have had experience with restorative justice in the real world.

What you want to provide is real life experience along with factual data to back up the need for restorative justice. In this case, Russ provided his real life testimony as a crime victim who benefited from his participation in a restorative justice dialogue (i.e. victim offender dialogue). I talked about my experience with restorative justice as an advocate, in California and working nationally on the subject, including various experiences that help to bring perspective to public official who often know nothing about restorative justice. There are times when the legislative office, generally their staff, will ask that only one person testify. You then need to make a decision on who is the best spokesperson for restorative justice. Maybe at that point you need to provide someone with a deeper background in restorative justice, which might not be the crime victim. You do not need to take your cue from the legislative office you are working with on the legislation.

In legislative hearings, as I said, time is of the essence. It is not atypical to be asked to testify in a five-minute time period. This just happened to us. We were given 10 minutes for both of us. That is short! But not impossible. Often though the chair of the committee, or staff, are sensitive to someone new to testifying, like Russ, and thus agree that he will be allowed more time to testify. Often a witness like a victim of crime is valued and their story is something they want to hear. An advocate, like myself, who has worked professionally in the legislative arena will be expected to keep her comments concise and to the point.

Although I have a great deal of public speaking experience I find it wise to write out my testimony. I do not always do that, sometimes I use an outline, but if the information you are presented is complicated or complex it is good to write it out. Don’t feel badly about that. Even legislators write out their remarks at times when presenting their own legislation. In this case I was presenting many facts, including some international data. It is best in cases like this to get it right. Testifying can be somewhat intimidating. But relax. Generally there is a lot of waiting around. But your being there as a witness is very important. Your voice is important.   

Remember also that when testifying there is protocol. In this case, there is way to introduce yourself, for the record, but also there is the proper way to recognize the chair of the committee, for instance, which I have done. Again, if you are unfamiliar with the protocol then ask an advocate or a legislative staff member.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of bringing along a crime victim in support of restorative justice. When I am making the case for restorative justice Russ’s presence and his testimony provides strong support for the position we are taking. It is often good to go into these types of public hearings with at least one person who has a background in public policy. If nothing else that advocate knows the politics that surrounds the issue and the body you are addressing. Knowing the politics and the etiquette of the public body you are testifying before will make the testimony more meaningful and more effective.

Do we in the restorative justice movement need to be more involved in the legislative process and affecting criminal justice public policy in our states and the countries we live in? Absolutely. Often without our input many do not know that restorative justice is an option or could be. As I stated in my testimony, restorative justice is on the cutting edge. It reflects forward thinking criminal justice reform around the world. We must learn from each other. We also must be available to be a witness to those who hold powerful public offices declaring the need to bring restorative justice principles to bear on our broken criminal justice systems.


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