Edited From New Age Magazine, January/February 1999.
There is a growing movement across the country called restorative Justice, also known in spiritual circles as transformational justice. The idea behind it is simple: Bring a person convicted of a crime together with his or her victim amid representatives or mediators from the broader community, and let everyone involved help to describe the offender’s sentence or restitution to the victim.
All this takes place outside the court system and results in reparations, not prison time. Restorative justice advocates believe that the adversarial nature of America’s criminal justice system divides communities, deepening the wound caused by the crime. By bringing a community together, they hope to heal those wounds –and perhaps even transform lives .
The following is a description of a meeting in Orange, Massachusetts: The meeting begins with an update on the case of a 19-year old referred to the committee by a restorative advocate judge. The youths’ offense was breaking and entering and he had earlier applied in writing for consideration by this committee. There was a meeting by the committee where everyone spoke of his or her concerns and the beginnings of a support group began to form. Two “keepers “ will emerge from that group to guide the slow creation and consequences of the offender’s “sentencing circle.”
Such circle develops sentences by consensus, passing a feather or talking stick around and speaking one voice at a time. They can include the victim, the offender, family, friends, employers, and probation officers, as well as members of the community who don’t know the victim or the offender.
Judges, too take part in sentencing circles, though they leave their robes in the court house. This volunteer community knows a corner is being turned; the offender could be the client for its first sentencing circle. According to the update, the client has been extremely attentive. But now that he has to decide who will be in his support group, he’s reluctant to impose on his family members and associates. Maybe he’s worried about what he’ll owe them.
Transformations like the one that could await him are impossible to price. Someone mentions “the grandma rule”used by other groups: find the grandma or other person whose opinion counts most of all for the offender, the one he or she usually wants to keep out of the process. Then pick that person.
But the client in this case seems to be resisting. He may turn out to need a long support relationship. For now, the judge is the groups safety net. He and the groups consensus process are both protections against vigilantism. The judge is the responsible one who will signoff on the sentence they come up with. They are the ones who are reaching out beyond traditional hierarchies and systems, making up rules as they go along for their community’s needs and purposes.
Experience will tell them what to save and what to throw away, what to say and not say, what to remember and what to forget. The idea behind restorative justice is actually a return to traditional roots. The concept has been traced to aboriginal systems of consensus-based community decision-making developed and adopted over centuries in Australia and New Zealand.
Some people also point to the age old ways behind the Navaho Court and sentencing circles of Canada’s First Nations. Probably The Quaker example of consensus and bearing witness was the one of the first European examples. In the 1970’s the Mennonites launched the modern restorative justice movement in the US by starting the first victim-offender reconciliation programs in Elkart, Indiana and Kitchener, Ontario.
This was also a time when former members of communes developed “group process training” particularly in the MOVEMENT for a New Society in Philadelphia. This led to a wave of dispute-resolution and community mediation groups that have since worked to clear up everything from toxic waste spills to play ground fights.
Internationally, restorative justice is taking root indifferent forms. Germans seem committed to victim- offender mediation, which also is attracting interest in Northern Ireland . Sentencing circles have been introduced in the Aboriginal Justice Section of Canada’s courts. Family group conferencing , a form typicall used with young offenders, is in place in Australia and New Zealand. In the US, numerous programs are already in place.
Family group conferencing has been used with hundreds of young offenders in Minneapolis and Bethlehem, PA. Real Justice, a 4-year –old private non-profit organization that helped introduce conferencing to the US, has also trained police officers, educators, community leaders and others to do conferencing in Vermont , Indiana, Virginia and Colorado. Other pilot programs are under way in Florida and Illinois.
The article goes on to state the results of numerous studies that show these programs work-a majority offenders successfully negotiate agreements to restore victims losses, victims are less fearful of re-victimization and are more satisfied, offenders are more likely to go through the program and less likely to reoffend. Results are similarly good with family group conferencing. “The heart is the key, “says Lucinda Brown of Reinventing Justice, a grpoup that has helped guide sentencing circle groups in Massachusetts. “Without it , the process will be just one more way to settle, one more way to punish. It’s a slow way, but it’s a safe way to have conflict.
In a circle, if 3 or 4 people make you furious, you know you’ll get your say when the feather is passed to you. “ As Brown points out, the success usually lies with the community. “ Is the offender connected to the community enough? If the offender isn’t interested in being in the community, it won’t work. . And when people ask where is the community that would do this, we say that this process builds community.