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Restorative practices improve outcomes and relationships in criminal justice and education settings across Latin America

June 16, 2014

In Lima, the capital of Peru, Schmitz trained a team of 30 professionals who work with adult and youth offenders in non-punitive alternative justice programs, such as those that assign community service work. Prior to the training, said Schmitz, the professionals were interested in only one thing: whether the offenders were completing their required service. Now, with restorative practices as a theoretical and practical foundation, the professionals have begun to employ circles with the offenders. In addition to the community service work, they give offenders a chance to talk to one another using a circle format, reflecting on their actions and discussing how they might repair the harm they’ve caused. During one circle Schmitz attended, he was impressed by one of the offenders, who talked about how important it was for him to learn about the experience of others in the group. The offender said he is more conscious of his own actions now. He said he believes he has righted his wrongs and no longer owes a debt to those he harmed.

Schmitz formerly worked for an internationally-oriented Swiss NGO, Terre des hommes, which advocates for the rights of children and supports restorative juvenile justice. During that time, Schmitz was interested to learn about the IIRP’s emphasis on restorative practices and their proactive – not just responsive – possibilities. He draws an analogy from his background as a nurse. From a public health perspective, Schmitz said, restorative justice can be equated with “tertiary prevention,” the aspect of public health that is a reaction to illness that currently affects a population. Likewise, restorative justice responds to crimes that have already occurred. From this viewpoint, restorative practices correlate to primary and secondary prevention: health programs that help to prevent disease and even make populations more resilient and healthy before sickness can strike. Restorative practices build social capital and relationships before harm occurs and reduce the number and severity of crimes, which hopefully makes it easier for people to heal.

Schmitz is seeing his work making an impact even on young children. A teacher in Lima who took part in a recent training works with children who are just three and four years old. She used to seat them in rows, but now she puts them all in a circle. “She discovered the circle was magical,” Schmitz said. Even very young children can learn to use a talking piece. “The kids respect it,” he said, “and they know that whoever is holding the talking piece gets to talk and everyone else listens.” At the beginning, the teacher started asking the children very simple questions about themselves, and restricted the total time for the circle to about five minutes. As the children become more familiar with the process, she asks more thought-provoking questions, such as, “For you, what does it mean to have a friend?” “The kids love it,” said Schmitz. “They keep asking her, ‘Miss, when are we doing a circle?’ ” She reports that other teachers are also doing circles in their classes and she stays in touch with Schmitz to ask questions.

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