Impacts of Restorative Justice on Recidivism
Marianne Bahna: Hi everyone, thanks for tuning in! My name is Marianne Bahna, and I’m a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researching the effects of restorative justice on recidivism.
So, restorative justice…and recidivism. Maybe you’ve heard those words before, maybe not. Either way, both of those terms are very important when referring to our current system of criminal justice. You see, in the United States, two out of every three former prisoners are arrested and sent to prison again within three years of their release. Add two more years to that, and this statistic skyrockets to 76.6 percent, placing the US at one of the top spots worldwide for recidivism. Well, what is recidivism, you may ask? Simply put, recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend after being released from prison.
So these statistics were very shocking to me (and hopefully to you as well), and it really got me thinking: if prisons were effective in teaching the “lessons” needed to correct criminal behavior, why are so many of the same prisoners getting trapped behind bars time and time again? Why is mass incarceration even a thing to begin with? Now, I won’t get too caught up in the details, but in brief, mass incarceration, according to an article from RED (Rehabilitation Enables Dreams, a nonprofit organization), can be traced all the way back to President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, which enforced the concept of set mandatory minimums for various drug-related crimes. This is a whole ‘nother topic for a whole ‘nother podcast, but in short, the US has a very “one-size fits all” approach to crime, and along with a structurally racist system built to target minority and low-income populations, you have yourself a problem. Maybe it’s time for a change. What if there was a better way, an alternate route, to divert people who committed petty or nonviolent crime completely out of the system before they even have the chance to enter it? A system that emphasizes second chances through rehabilitation and growth, instead of blind and passive punishment. This system is restorative justice. Throughout this project, I’ve done extensive research on media and statistical data in order to better understand the impact restorative justice has on eliminating the root cause of crime and transforming the culture of the larger community to promote healing and change. I’ve even managed to snag a couple interviews with some leading professionals in the field, so stay tuned! This is bound to be interesting.
Let’s first dive into exactly what happens during a restorative justice session. Well, first of all, before all of that, it’s probably important to note the different kinds of restorative justice sessions that exist. Some of the most common programs associated with restorative justice include family group conferences, victim-offender mediation, circle sentencing, reparative boards, and more. Restorative justice practices are even being adopted into school systems nowadays, empowering students to make their voices heard and resolve conflicts through community-building circles and small impromptu conferencing. However, in this podcast, I’m going to be focusing on victim-offender mediation and circle sentencing, two types of restorative justice practices that are most common. Victim-offender mediation is a process that provides interested victims an opportunity to meet their offender in a safe and structured setting, and engage in a mediated discussion of the crime. So yes, there is a trained mediator present, who is there mainly to facilitate discussion and ensure the safety of both the victim and the person who committed the crime. And in this mediated discussion, victims are supposed to explain how the crime affected them and are given the opportunity to ask the offender questions about the incident. Meanwhile, the offender is supposed to tell their side of the story and take direct responsibility by making amends of some sort. So usually, by the end of the meeting, there is this agreement that’s reached by both parties and provides a resolution to the conflict. So maybe at this point, you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – what makes you think that the victim would even want to be in the same room as the offender, or vice versa?”. Which is a valid point. So before any victim-offender mediation takes place, there are three basic requirements that must be met, according to the UN Handbook on Restorative Justice Programs: 1. The offender must accept or not deny responsibility for the crime; 2. Both the victim and the offender must be willing to participate; and 3. Both the victim and the offender must consider it safe to be involved in the process. So it’s a completely voluntary process on both ends.
Now for circle sentencing. And what’s really cool about circle sentencing is that it actually dates back to traditional sanctioning and healing practices of aboriginal peoples in Canada and American Indians in the United States, which are referred to as peacemaking circles. This ancient tradition was revived in 1991 primarily in community justice committees in the Yukon territory up in Canada, then spread to the US in 1996 when a pilot project was initiated in Minnesota. So circle sentencing is the same as victim offender mediation in that it has a facilitator as well, but it’s not limited just to the participant and the person who committed the crime; it’s pretty much open to the entire community, including the crime victims, offenders, family and friends of both, justice and social service personnel, and any other person who is interested and wants to join. So essentially both victim-offender mediation and circle sentencing have this common thread of verbal discussion amongst its participants, whether that be just among the victim, the person who committed the crime and the facilitator or among a small group of people from the community.
So now that we’ve discussed kinds of restorative justice, let’s discuss what types of crime it’s used for. In reality, restorative justice can be used for any crime, with limitations, depending on the severity of the crime. And it’s also important to note that these limitations can also include the law itself- the US criminal justice system- meaning that restorative justice is used in parallel with the law; it’s not a replacement, just an alternative. For example, for violent crimes such as murder or assault, these are felonies, and they have hefty consequences. In these cases, restorative justice is used in combination with their sentences. Here’s a really good audio clip from Mr. Jon Powell, a criminal justice attorney-turned-restorative justice program director at Campbell Law Restorative Justice Clinic.
Jon Powell: By and large, if they’re on death row, they’re never getting out of prison. And people say why would you go in and work with those guys? Well, because, they are living in community. They may not be living in our community, but they are living in community with each other in that prison….One of the greatest sources of conflict comes out of people that feel like they have no power or control. So when you’re trying to exert power and control, a lot of times that results in conflict. So we believe that helping them create relationship and stronger community is going to make prisons a safer place to be.
Bahna: So yeah, that’s a pretty extreme case, but it emphasizes restorative justice’s goal to repair damaged relationships through genuine transformation and empathy for others, even if there will be no change in the sentence. Now, of course, restorative justice is also used for smaller crimes, misdemeanors, as well. And these are the types of crimes for which restorative justice can be used to divert people out of the criminal justice system before they even enter it, which is a good thing, because the United States criminal justice system, at times, can be something like a maze. Once you get out, it can be very easy to get back in, or to reoffend.
So to recap so far, we’ve learned that restorative justice is a justice system that offers an alternate route to crime sentencing through discussion among those affected, as well as reparation once an agreement is reached. And, personally, once I had that basic understanding, I had a ton more questions. And one of my biggest ones was “What if the person who committed the crime, the perpetrator, is not being completely honest? What if they’re just saying what the victim and the other participants in the circle want to hear so they can get off the hook?” After all, that could potentially be a significant roadblock in the whole restorative justice process, a process that is entirely centered on this proposition of honest discussion to reach a viable end for both parties. And according to the experts, that would indeed be a roadblock, one that could even stop the progression of the restorative justice process completely. This time, let’s listen to Restorative Justice Coordinator Leah Wilson-Hartgrove at the Restorative Justice Durham Organization.
Leah Wilson-Hartgrove: You know, if the participant is just not able to engage in an open and honest and accountable way, then we can either redirect in some way and, and try to make space for that and try to figure out what’s going on here. Or we can end the process and say,, you’re not engaging in this and, you know, based on our restorative values, and so we’re gonna have to end this now…in the pre conferencing, the team is usually pretty good at reading, is this going to be able to be, you know, is this person going to be able to fully engage in an open in as open and honest way as possible. And so we might slow the process down and call the people harmed, or the person harm and say, you know, we’re going to need to, you know, we’ve got some more of the team believes there’s some more work to do, and that the participant isn’t quite ready to come together at a conference or goal.
Bahna: So that covers that.
Another question I had was “what happens to individuals who committed the crime after the restorative justice circle itself? How are they kept accountable?” Because transformation is a process, right? It can’t just happen overnight. And so after these restorative justice circles, there are definitely follow-up meetings. Actually, even before the restorative justice circle itself, there are individual meetings with the facilitator and the perpetrator, and the facilitator and the victim, just to prepare them for the actual face-to-face meeting, which definitely makes sense. I wouldn’t want to be placed in the same room as someone who seriously hurt me without being completely ready. And so after the meeting, there are conditions to be met, actions to be taken, and meetings to be held. These conditions and actions are usually put into place during the actual restorative justice circle, through the mutual agreement of the victim and the person who committed the crime. And so let’s say that the repair agreement phase, the time in which the person who committed the crime is supposed to take action to fulfill what was agreed upon during the restorative justice circle, is six weeks out from the time of the original circle. What may happen is that the facilitator will routinely check on the person who committed the crime, let’s say once per week, in order to make sure everything is going smoothly and to actually keep them accountable. And depending on the severity of the crime, the repairment agreement can be as simple as an honest apology to a written agreement to go to therapy, go to AA meetings, start taking college classes, whatever it may be to alleviate the situation. So because there are so many checkpoints, this entire process can take anywhere from four months up to a year.
Lastly, I just wanna talk stats. Does restorative justice actually lower rates of recidivism? According to a research brief conducted by the Justice Research and Statistics Association compiled in 2020, out of a sample size of 619 offenders who participated in victim-offender mediation restorative justice, researchers found that the tendency to reoffend after these sessions was reduced by 32 percent. Based on a one year follow-up period, these victim-offender mediation participants had a recidivism rate of 19 percent, compared to 28 percent for their comparison group counterparts, or offenders who instead followed a traditional court sentencing model. Not only that, research performed from a team of scientists from The University of Twente in the Netherlands also indicates higher satisfaction rates among both victims and offenders who participated in a restorative justice process compared to victims and offenders whose cases were dealt within the conventional criminal justice system, without restorative justice. Both parties also experience restorative justice processes to be fairer and more just, as they have a say in the outcome and feel heard more. The nature of the environment that restorative justice creates is akin to a “safe-space”, in which an individual who committed a crime is not labeled as a criminal and not seen as an outcast, rather, a person who made a mistake, a human being, who is encouraged to feel shameful for their wrongdoings in order to feel motivated to correct them. Not only that, restorative justice is a much cheaper alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Prisons, in 2020 it cost over 39,000 dollars per year to house each inmate. And this is a hefty sum… coming exclusively from US taxpayer dollars. So, a prisoner with a 10-year sentence would cost us about 390,000 dollaras in total, just for incarceration. And after his ten years are up, depending on the offered correctional services and educational programs available in the prison, he will go back into society with no marketable skills or education, meaning that he very likely will fall back onto a life of crime for which he initially was incarcerated, costing another bucketload of money with little to no benefits. Restorative justice, on the other hand, costs approximately one thousand dollars per participant, providing a more valuable experience, in terms of both money and virtue.
So, to wrap up here, I just want to include a quote from my interview with Leah Wilson-Hartgrove about restorative justice in specific to the RJ Durham Organization and what that looks like in terms of policy. Take a listen.
Leah Wilson-Hartgrove: For restorative justice, Durham, we want to offer a circle process for people who want there to be a different approach and a different response. And even in cases of violent harm, we believe that there can be such a widespread community response to that, that, you know, we are able to, to not isolate and remove people from our community. But instead, you know, a lot of what we hear that leads to harm in the first place is isolation, and not having a sense of being part of a family or community. And so rather than exacerbating that and saying, Okay, well, let’s isolate you even further in prison, we want to find ways as a community to respond restoratively and say, we want to, you know, embrace you and find ways towards your healing and the healing of the people and community you’ve harmed together…And so, you know, for folks who are policy makers and policy, you know, change makers and that sort of thing, we want to be able to say, here’s, here’s an alternative, and some of us do work on those policy changes, as individuals. Right now, as restorative justice Durham as an organization. We aren’t, like, partisan or particularly, you know, trying to push a particular policy. While we all certainly believe that prison isn’t the answer.
Bahna: Okay, so that was definitely a lot to get through. So thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope you enjoyed and learned as much as I did; through my research I think I can safely say that restorative justice has become a passion of mine that I can’t wait to explore more! And kind of reflecting on my own life right now and what I can take away from restorative justice, though I haven’t committed a crime, I think the principles of clear and honest discussion with someone who’s done you harm are really effective when it comes to resolving conflict, and that’s definitely something we can apply to our everyday lives.
That brings me to the end of my podcast! Just want to give a major thank you to both Mr. Jon Powell and Ms. Leah Wilson-Hartgrove for their willingness to contribute and answer my many questions, and also a thank you to you, the listener! Through restorative justice, we can enact a more equitable solution to a vicious cycle of crime, one that brings about change and transformation, instead of pain and isolation.
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