The criminal justice system is a revolving door. Restorative justice might be a better way.
We keep punishing criminals, but that doesn’t result in less crime. With “R.J.,” “We are looking at actual accountability and not just punishment,” says one supporter of the approach.
Last weekend, more than 1,700 people gathered at McCormick Place for the eighth annual meeting of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice, a growing movement that many of us write off as B.S.
Restorative justice — R.J. — is the practice of restoring an offender to a right relationship with victims and the community. It often involves bringing together victim, offender and community members, who sit in a circle and talk about what was behind a crime, the harm it caused and how the offender can atone for it.
“One would think that, if we kept punishing people, we would see less crime, but there’s no data to support that,” said Tanya Woods, co-founder and executive director of the Westside Justice Center and a restorative justice practitioner. “When we take this approach, we are looking at people who can come back to communities. We are looking at actual accountability and not just punishment. And we are looking at creating new pathways to restoring and reconnecting communities that actually work,” she said.
While Chicago, with its relentless violence, would seem a welcoming place for peacemakers, many critics characterize R.J. practitioners as soft on crime — a roadblock for the people who actually have the power to change a criminal justice system that seems to have failed.
"If sentence enhancements and prisons worked, we would be one of the safest places in the world," said Elizabeth “Betsy” Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization. "I talked to legislators over and over again. They would say, 'I know this isn't going to help. I know this is wrong, but this is what I have to support.’ "
Meanwhile, we are caught up in a cycle of violence that seems to get worse — and not just in impoverished neighborhoods.
I remember when people who lived on the South Side and the West Side would say, "When they start shooting downtown the way they are shooting in the 'hood, they'll do something about it.”
Well, that day has come. As the mass shooting in Highland Park that left seven dead and dozens wounded showed, there is no hiding place.
So what are we to do?
For some, R.J. is a viable alternative to sending youth to prison for more extended periods and returning them home with no skills and no way to make a living.
Kathleen Bankhead, a former prosecutor who headed a bureau of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, is now a restorative justice advocate.
“When I was a bureau chief, a friend, Cheryl Graves, from Community Justice for Youth Institute and other R.J. practitioners came to see me talk about embedding R.J. into the Juvenile Justice Center,” Bankhead said. “That was 2009. I had never heard those [two] words together.”
A year later, Bankhead sat in a circle for the first time because of a conflict between the state’s attorney's office and a community organization.
"After I experienced restorative justice, knowing that we needed to do something different in the criminal legal system, I understood that was the beginning of the end of a prosecutor's career for me," she said.
Bankhead became an ombudsman for young people sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
"I've seen the strength, loyalty, hope and resilience in the young people in the face of abject loss," she said. "We lose so much of that strength in service to our communities because of the lack of opportunity and resources for those young people in de-funded communities. My experience with restorative justice let me know that's what we must do in our communities. It's what we used to do when we were neighbors.”
Despite the bloodshed on our streets, America's lawmakers aren't likely to take away a citizen's right to own guns.
But how can we continue to justify allowing citizens to have assault weapons capable of killing and maiming dozens of people in minutes?
Maybe, just maybe, restorative justice can help end the desire for such guns.
To learn more about restorative justice, see the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice’s website at www.nacrj.org.