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Restorative Justice Bill Introduced in Massachusetts

August 13, 2013

In May 2012, Ms. Connors and the two men sat side-by-side on a panel the Suffolk County district attorney’s office hosted to highlight the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program in the State. The men had been released from prison and were living up to the commitments they made to Ms. Connors. That reunion in the DA’s office, too, was a testament to the restorative process.

Today, restorative justice programs are implemented in different settings. In Charlestown High School, the Diploma Plus Program hired Ms. Connors to lead restorative circles with students. Last year, at the Restorative Justice Conference organized by the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative, Diploma Plus student Paul Holmes shared with an audience that, “Restorative justice has helped me become a better person, and it has helped me become a man. … I am noticing that I am more into everything. Restorative Justice has helped me become successful in everything I do.” Rather than simply suspending students, the restorative justice group at Charlestown High School seeks to bring together students who have violated rules and the larger community who promises to support and hold the youth accountable. In circle, community members as well as school administrators, teachers, and students engage in a dialogue about accountability for misbehavior. They also agree on commitments the students follow to make amends for their offenses.

In Lowell, Mass., Erin Freeborn founded Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion (JC RJD) aimed at reducing the rate of recidivism among youth. Working directly with the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, Ms. Freeborn, along with Ms. Connors, runs restorative justice circles with youth accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies. JC RJD receives referrals from the Juvenile Court, and Ms. Freeborn prepares participants on both sides so that they can participate in the circle process. At the end of each restorative meeting, the youth make agreements to the harmed party and the larger community. If they uphold their agreements and do not reoffend, their offenses does not remain on their permanent record.

These restorative programs are only some of the few taking place in Massachusetts, and while more programs continue to sprout throughout the state, no law has helped promote or endorse any of them. This legislative session, however, State Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) has introduced Senate Bill 52, An Act promoting restorative justice practices. If it goes into law, the act would not only give legislative recognition and legitimacy to restorative practices, but it would also establish a committee to assess programs in the state as well as make recommendations for future programming. This committee would bring together a range of representatives, from court-based programs to community members and academics in the field. For us in the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative, an organization that seeks to sustain the existing momentum and nourish a more cohesive restorative justice movement throughout the Commonwealth, the Act would further establish our efforts to bring restorative and transformative practices to a number of settings including schools, shelters, and prisons.

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