Restorative Justice Part 1

When we were in high school, a good friend and I volunteered to be candy-stripers at the local hospital.  Besides filling water pitchers for the patients, I don’t remember what we did, but I sure liked the pink and white striped uniforms we got to wear, and I liked the idea of being of service. That was the first in a long line of volunteer activities I’ve been involved in over the years.  From hospice volunteer to Sunday School teacher and superintendent, from Girl Scout leader and Cub Scout camp nurse to room mother in my daughter’s classroom, I’ve always felt called to help.  Sometimes I’ve taken on too much, and I’ve had to learn the hard way that occasionally I have to disappoint people because in order to do one or two things well, I have to say no to other things.

I don’t think it’s because I’m such a good person that I did a lot of volunteering – it’s like I’ve felt the pull to serve, to make the world better, to make life easier for other people.  Just like I feel the call to write at times, the feeling that I just have to put certain thoughts down in writing,  I also feel the call to be involved in certain life-bringing, worth-while activities. Most of the jobs I have had, including the one I have now center around helping people and care-taking.  At times, I wish I had a different calling, that I could be an inventor or dancer or writer of music or actress or designer. (I know a person can do volunteer work and still be one of these things, but it doesn’t seem that any of them are part of my life purpose)  The call to be a helper just seems so boring and insignificant. (Why is it that things other people do often seem more glamorous or important?)  Of course, it’s also been gratifying in many ways, and, a few years ago, the call to volunteer in a county restorative justice program turned out to be anything but boring and insignificant.  In fact, in my opinion, it’s been one of the most important and gratifying things I have ever done.

When I first heard the term “restorative justice” it intrigued me because I love the word restorative and I loved that it was associated with justice.  Restore means to bring back to a former or original state, to renew. This definition from Restorative Justice Online tells a little bit about what restorative justice actually is although it is somewhat difficult to define: “Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.  It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet although other approaches are available when that is impossible.  This can lead to transformation of people, relationships, and communities.  It is a way of thinking about justice, not simply the programs and practices often associated with restorative justice.  It places great importance on the needs of victims and the accountability of offenders, and it addresses both in ways that, to the degree possible, repair the harm caused by the crime.”

In our program, we work with juvenile offenders, most often with those who have committed misdemeanors.  We use a Circle process in which the offender and his or her support persons, community members, the restorative justice coordinator, and the victim are all invited to take part. Each member of the circle has an equal say and most decisions are made by consensus.  A talking piece is passed around the circle, and only the person holding the talking piece does the talking, unless directing questions to the offender or victim.  We start with an opening which is usually a quote, story, or poem, etc. and end with a similar closing.  Much of the time in the beginning is spent on building relationships and discussing values.  Unfortunately, in the circles I have been involved in, the victims have chosen not to take part.  If they had, it is a good chance for them to talk about how the crime affected them and a good chance for the offender to face the victim and hear the impact their actions had on the victim’s life. In place of the victim actually being there, some time is spent showing how many people a crime can affect, from the victim to their family, to friends, neighbors, business owners, and other community members. Circle members may also share stories from their own lives, possibly talking about mistakes they made in the past or how they have been impacted by crime.  To me, it seems the best part about this time is the forming of relationships and trust, the chance for the victim to speak, and the chance for the offender to also be heard and be an equal member of a group, something they may never have experienced before.

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