Sunday, May 6, 2012

Restorative justice does work

The Youngstown Vindicator
Sunday, May 6, 2012

There is an enormous amount of money spent on keeping our communities and neighborhoods safe.

Notwithstanding what individuals spend to keep themselves safe, public funds are expended to investigate and arrest suspects. Public funds are used to prosecute and, a significant majority of the time, defend those suspects.

Once convicted, the government shells out tax dollars to house, guard and care for literally millions of offenders. With budgets tight — more than half of police departments surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum reported funding cuts this year — lawmakers are looking for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice model “arrest’em, try’em and lock’em up.”

One alternative gaining traction is Restorative Justice. RJ is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished when the parties meet face-to-face to establish a plan of accountability and reconciliation. A meaningful RJ effort can transform people, relationships and communities.

Comprehensive view

According to the Prison Fellowship International, Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, RJ is different from contemporary criminal justice in several ways. First, RJ views criminal acts more comprehensively — rather than defining crime simply as law breaking; it recognizes that offenders harm victims, communities and even themselves. Second, it brings more stakeholders to the table — rather than only giving key roles to law enforcement and the offender; it includes the victim and community. Finally, it measures success differently — rather than measuring merely convictions and punishment, it measures how much harm is repaired and, more importantly, how much harm is prevented.

Does RJ work? Dr. Lawrence W. Sherman and Dr. Heather Strang wrote in “Restorative Justice: the Evidence” that RJ seems to reduce serious crime, with specific discernible victims, more effectively than less serious crime. They also suggest that RJ works with violent crimes more effectively than property crimes. That finding is significant.

Sixteen states have included RJ in their respective criminal or juvenile codes. The juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania is one of those states. Pennsylvania’s juvenile system is guided by a balanced and restorative justice philosophy. The statute’s purpose clause specifically addresses the RJ model, “the protection of the public interest, to provide for children committing delinquent acts programs of supervision, care, and rehabilitation that provide balanced attention to the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed, and the development of competencies to enable children to become responsible and productive members of the community.”

Dr. Sandra Pavelka wrote in “Restorative Juvenile Justice and Policy: A National Assessment” that accountability is central to Pennsylvania’s RJ efforts. The accountability component requires the juvenile to commit to making the victim and community whole in the aftermath of an offense.

Core mission

Pennsylvania’s core mission is to insure that juveniles who become involved in the juvenile justice system leave the system more capable of being responsible and productive members of their communities. The measurable goals of Pennsylvania’s RJ include writing a letter of apology, completing meaningful community service, attending victim awareness panels, and providing restitution to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

The final measurable outcome is recidivism — did the juvenile offend again? According to a 2006 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency report, approximately 87 percent of Pennsylvania juvenile cases were closed without a new offense.

Restorative Justice approaches to juvenile crime will undoubtedly have an impact on future crime rates — fewer juvenile offenders committing crimes as adults. Can that success be replicated with adult offenders? The studies tell us yes: the criminal justice costs tell us we must.

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