This experience, with all the questions, needs, and uncertainties, is unfortunately too common. Most often the criminal justice system is activated after such a criminal act and law enforcement, lawyers, and judges become involved. Through the court process, people who have been victimized by crime and violence often do not have their needs met or their questions answered. Programs that use the concept of Restorative Justice are an alternative means to repair the harm caused by crime and violence.
Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that requires us as a society to think of criminal acts or disciplinary incidents on school grounds as a violation of relationships rather than a violation of laws or rules. Restorative Justice requires us to understand the root cause of an individual’s actions and then work with that individual to support him or her to make it right, to be held truly accountable. Crime and conflict often arises out of unmet needs. Restorative Justice works to address everyone’s needs as a community to prevent future violence.
Restorative Justice programs do not rely on punishment. There is emerging research that shows that punitive measures such as arrest, incarceration, and suspensions and expulsions do not work. Studies show that just one court appearance quadruples the odds a student will drop out of school. Seventy five percent of youth leaving locked facilities nationally are rearrested, indicating that incarceration does not lead to less crime. The data shows that punitive measures in fact have a negative effect on youth and do not prevent future crime. Further, punitive strategies are used disproportionately against youth of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and youth with disabilities.
At the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), we use a practice called Restorative Community Conferencing to address crimes committed by young people under the age of 18. The practice of community conferencing is derived from the Maori people in New Zealand, and has been adopted by the entire country of New Zealand as the model response to the majority of juvenile crime instead of formal juvenile justice system processing. CCEJ’s program allows youth who have been arrested to avoid the negative effects of going through the formal court system by participating in a Restorative Community Conference. If the youth, who are referred by the Long Beach Police Department, L.A. County Probation and the courts, successfully completes the program, they will not have a juvenile record.
The Restorative Community Conferencing process consists of a face-to-face meeting between the youth and the person who they have harmed, as well as the family members and additional support people for each individual. For example, after the burglary described above, the people whose house was burglarized would have the opportunity to meet in person with the youth who burglarized them. They would get the chance to express how the burglary impacted them, ask questions of the youth, receive restitution, and have a say in how the youth will be held accountable to make sure he/she will not do something like that again. Additionally, the homeowners’ neighbors would have the opportunity to participate so that some of their fears could be put to rest.
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