Saturday, May 4, 2013

GateHouse: Restorative justice: What’s old is new again

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 3, 2013

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

Notwithstanding what individuals invest to keep themselves safe, public funds are expended to investigate and arrest suspects. Tax dollars 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 in 2012—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). 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.

RJ views criminal acts more comprehensively—rather than defining crime simply as law breaking; it recognizes that offenders harm victims, communities and even themselves.

In the U.K. there are a couple of ways to use RJ and each gives victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to questions and to receive an apology.

Through “conversations” the police resolve low-level crime without formal proceedings by holding, usually face-to-face, a conversation between offender and victim.

Through “conferences” everyone affected by an incident is invited to a structured meeting to decide what should be done to repair the harm. The offender meets the victim to apologize and help the victim recover from the crime.

A conference or conversation between offender and victims is not as novel as it seems. It wasn’t long ago when police officers walked the beat and became familiar faces in neighborhoods across the country. It wasn’t unusual for the beat officer to bring neighborhood families together, who were involved in a dispute, to collectively find a solution.

For instance, a couple of teenagers get into a scuffle. Arrest was not routine, instead the teens and their parents were summoned to the police station to work out their differences. Back in the day, it might have been considered common sense — today its restorative justice. Either way it’s the right thing to do.

Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “Offenders, victims and their supporters all benefit from the free exchange of emotion that happens in a restorative justice conference. The conference process provides a way for all participants to discover their common humanity and move forward.”

Does RJ work? Dr. Lawrence W. Sherman and Dr. Heather Strang wrote in “Restorative Justice: the Evidence” that RJ reduces crime. In fact, 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 — a significant finding.

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 measurable goals of Pennsylvania’s RJ include writing a letter of apology, completing meaningful community service, attending victim awareness panels, and providing restitution.

The most important measure of success is recidivism — did the juvenile offend again?

According to a 2009 report by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, only about 19 percent of Pennsylvania’s juvenile offenders recidivated compared to 46 percent of adult offenders who committed a new crime or are returned to prison.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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