Restorative Justice in the Community
My last few posts have focused on how schools address situations where students violate rules and cause harm in the school setting, and I’ll be writing more on that subject in the coming weeks. But what about situations where young people violate rules or laws and cause harm in our neighborhoods and communities?
Here in Lancaster County, we’re really fortunate to have an organization called Center for Community Peacemaking (CCP) – formerly called LAVORP – to help youth who cause harm, and those who have been harmed to work through those incidents together. That process is called “restorative justice.”
I know many of you who read my blog know about restorative justice, but many other readers have been asking me questions about it and how it works. So I thought it might be helpful to share an actual story of restorative justice in action. This is a story I’ve been given permission to share, and I’ve told the story to many audiences around the country.
First, two items of “full disclosure”:
1. I am a volunteer mediator for CCP . . . but,
2. This story was NOT one of my cases
So, on to the story:
Michael was 16. He was an angry kid. He spent most of his days just “hanging out” around the neighborhood. One day, Michael was “hanging out” in a small Lancaster grocery store. While he was in the store, Michael pulled a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, lit the corners of a few boxes on the shelves and watched as the flames spread. Then he ran away.
The fire caused $1500 worth of damage.
Michael got caught, and he was sent to juvenile court.
If we think about how the traditional criminal justice system would have most likely handled this, Michael would probably have been charged with arson (a felony), possibly charged as an adult, and likely would have been sent to juvenile detention or jail for some period of time. After coming out of detention or jail, having a felony record would have affected the rest of Michael’s life in numerous ways.
Luckily, the juvenile court judge who heard Michael’s case knew about restorative justice and CCP. So he referred Michael’s case to CCP. A CCP mediator met first with the store owner, a man named Mr. Good (yep, that’s his real name – a very common Lancaster County surname!), to learn how the fire had impacted him and to ask what he needed to address the harm.
Then the mediator met with Michael, to talk with him about his actions and determine whether Michael was willing to be accountable for what he had done.
In these separate meetings, the mediator also asked both Mr. Good and Michael whether they would be willing to meet face to face to talk about how to “set things right.” Both agreed, so the mediator brought them together.
By sitting together, face to face, Michael heard first-hand from Mr. Good about how the fire had affected him, his employees, his small business, and his family. Hearing about all of the ways his actions had hurt people, Michael felt terrible. He hadn’t been thinking at all about all of those consequences of his actions when he had set the fire. Michael apologized to Mr. Good and asked how he could make things right. Together, Michael and Mr. Good worked out a detailed, written agreement for Michael to pay restitution to Mr. Good to cover the damages from the fire.
Their dialogue reflected the four questions that are at the heart of restorative justice:
• Who has been harmed by a crime?
• What are their needs?
• Who should be accountable for addressing those needs?
• What can be done to address the harm?
Their face to face meeting also provide the essential things that restorative justice offers to both victims and offenders:
• an opportunity for the offender to understand the impact of his/her actions, accept responsibility and make amends to the victim
• an opportunity for the victim to tell the offender how they’ve experienced the harm (an important part of the healing process for victims), get questions answered and have their needs met through an agreement they’ve created with the offender
So, when Michael and Mr. Good got to this point, the mediator was ready to bring their meeting to a close.
But then Mr. Good asked Michael about his plans for his future, what he wanted to do with his life.
Michael wasn’t sure. He hadn’t thought much about it. He just wanted to get out of high school.
Mr. Good urged Michael to go to college, to pursue a more positive future for himself.
And then, Mr. Good made this promise to Michael: “You follow through on this agreement we’ve made, and pay me full restitution. Graduate from high school and get yourself enrolled in college. Come back to see me and tell me where you’ve enrolled, and I will put all of the restitution money you’ve paid me toward your college tuition.”
Over many months, a few dollars at a time, Michael paid the full restitution to Mr. Good. He graduated from high school, and then, Michael enrolled at Lock Haven University to major in . . . (wanna guess?) . . . Criminal Justice.
And, as Mr. Good had promised, he put all of the restitution money Michael had paid to him toward Michael’s tuition.
Michael completed a bachelors degree in only three years and he recently finished a Master’s degree program in Criminal Justice.
Contrast that outcome for Michael with where he might be today, if he had been dealt with through the traditional criminal justice system.
THAT’S the power of restorative justice.
POSTSCRIPT: I had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Good about the fire and his CCP dialogue with Michael, a number of years after both events took place. I asked him what had prompted him to make his “restitution money for tuition” offer to Michael. Here is what he told me:
“I just felt that by offering what I did – to give restitution money back toward college tuition – it felt like true justice. Sometimes the best antidote for immaturity is education. So I thought: let’s turn this thing around. I hoped it would give Michael a chance to turn things around. He’s going to be able to contribute to society in important ways.”
And if you’re interested in reading more about the impact of school disciplinary practices, from “zero tolerance” to restorative justice, check out these recent posts: