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Dan Van Ness: Restorative justice and the problem of minority over-representation

January 19, 2009

It has also challenged proponents of restorative justice. Is it better or worse at
reducing over-representation? Is it (potentially) any better at
incorporating awareness of broader social injustices in resolving
specific cases? If not, how can it call itself restorative
justice if it continues to reflect structural injustice?

A Working Group
charged with addressing
over-representation in a local jurisdiction adopted the following
operating principles to guide its work:

1.  The concept of “over-representation” must be clearly
defined and understood…. The fact of over-representation alone does not
establish its cause.  But its existence necessitates further

2.  The Working Group… should focus on identifying areas of
over-representation and addressing areas of unfair over-representation
that are within their control…. The [working group] should focus on
those where [justice system] agencies do have control.

3.  Both the perception and the reality of inequities in our
criminal justice system are important. The effectiveness of any justice
system depends upon the community’s shared perception that it operates
fairly and equitably.

4.  There are no immediate, short-term solutions to the public
perceptions and realities of over-representation.  The causes of
over-representation are many and complex. Opinions and viewpoints about
these causes are diverse and strongly held…. Action must begin now, as
the Working Group is proposing.

5.  Some data relevant to over-representation are not readily
available or reliable…. In order to address over-representation on a
permanent basis, a comprehensive, automated data collection process
must be established that collects and reconciles data from all of the
criminal justice agencies….

6.  Many public policies, within and outside of the criminal
justice system, affect the extent of minority
over-representation.  Policies such as federal enforcement of
immigration and narcotics laws or the local enforcement of street
crime, may contribute to over-representation.  Each must be

7.  Any action plan adopted… needs additional community input
in order to be credible and effective….  A community outreach
process must be established that ensures a dialogue with citizens and
communities across the County about all of the causes of
over-representation and about the possible remedies.

Are these useful operating principles to guide
restorative exploration of the problem? Which would you change,
add, replace or drop?


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