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Trench democracy in criminal justice: An interview with Lauren Abramson

December 25, 2013

AD: When forty-four people gather together do you have certain expectations for participation?

LA: Well, transparency is a principle behind what we do. People always know what they are coming into. And they know, first of all, that this is a meeting for people who are interested in trying to make the situation better. So if they’re not really interested in trying to make the situation better, then the conference is probably not the place for them.

AD: Do you have any people exit at that point?

LA: Not often. People know that when they come, they’re going to sit in a circle with no table and talk about three things. First, they’ll hear what has been going on—what’s happened—and hear it from the people directly involved. Second, everybody in the circle will have a chance to say how they were affected. Third, once everyone has spoken and had a chance to listen, then the group will talk about what can be done to repair the harm and prevent this from happening again.

AD: When you say, “after everyone has spoken,” do you mean the people who are primary to a given conflict or everybody in the room?

LA: Everybody in the circle has an equal chance to participate.

AD: And so you brought up the case of forty-four people. All forty-four are in the circle?

LA: Yes.

AD: So if they come into that room they need to be prepared to say something.

LA: They know that they are going to have the opportunity to speak if they wish to.

AD: Have you been in a group where somebody keeps their arms crossed and doesn’t say anything?

LA: The emotional piece of the conference is important. And a lot of times people come so angry and disgusted and terrified that they will sit with their arms crossed and with their backs turned and all sorts of things. Throughout the Community Conference, though, there are many opportunities to speak and to listen. If they don’t want to speak in the initial discussion, when the group starts to come up with an agreement and we still see somebody whose arms are crossed, we’ll say, “Before we fill this out, is there anything else anyone would like to say?” Or we would say to that person, “Is there something you’d like to see happen that would help you feel better about this?” So at a number of points during the conversation, the facilitator gives everybody an opportunity, but we don’t make anybody do anything.

AD: This seems to be as much emotional work as cognitive work. Dialogue is important in restorative justice but reading through your descriptions of the conferences I wonder if something even more basic is involved—namely, proximity: just getting people who wouldn’t normally sit next to each other to do that.

LA: I think that’s a big part of it. That’s the difference between what we do and, say, study circles. Study circles typically engage people in dialogue but participants tend to have similar value systems already. And what I love about this work is that you do get people together who normally would not be sitting in the same room with each other, let alone talking with each other.

AD: And that’s the price of admission to the conference: you’ve got to come into the room and sit next to people you may not like. Have you seen changes in disposition because people come together?

LA: Many times. Hundreds and hundreds of times. Not just because they come together, though. In schools, principals try to have what they call a conference or a meeting and bring together kids and parents and it blows up into a huge melee. We know so many principals who will not bring together families anymore. So I don’t think proximity is the only factor. A well-designed structure is also crucial for good communication.

Read the full article.


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