THE BLOG

Restorative Justice Is on the Rise

07/23/2013 01:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2013

What kind of society spends more on cages than classrooms? -Rep. Pete Lee (Colorado)

Restorative Justice is on the rise exponentially in the United States. As millions continue to experience and witness a collective 'justice' that is tainted by racial discrimination, by billions in profit, by the warehousing of our meek, a school-to-prison pipeline and by the practices of expecting punishment and isolation for all involved when crime occurs to actually function as rehabilitative, there is a form in the air, in the political, in the grassroots, in the hearts of the people, that offers a viable life-ring out of this deluge.

Restorative Justice is not about excusing crime or letting people off the hook. It's not about forcing forgiveness or even about forgiveness per se. It's not about removing important safety considerations from our communities. What Restorative Justice is makes it the most powerful answer to the justice predicament that we've yet seen.

  • Restorative justice is nothing new. It has been practiced for thousands of years if not more by global Indigenous. It is used in New Zealand as the primary Juvenile Justice Model.
  • Restorative Justice asks who has been harmed and seeks to repair that harm appropriately. It has three baseline questions: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? -Howard Zehr
  • Restorative Justice shows high diversionary rates from incarceration, saving states tens of thousands of dollars if not more, per case.
  • Restorative Justice views crime as a violation of people and relationships.
  • Restorative Justice understands that violations create obligations.
  • Restorative Justice involves, as much as possible and where there is will, victims, offenders, community members, as well as representatives from the operating Law Enforcement and/or Corrections systems.
In the state of Colorado, we see viable proof of the above concepts and points. Just last month State Representative Pete Lee keynoted at the National Conference on Restorative Justice in Toledo and had this to say about the raw data:

The United States is the Incarceration Nation. We incarcerate 754 people per 100,000; the average in the world is around 160. Colorado and Ohio have some of the highest incarceration rates in the US, higher than dictatorships such as Pakistan and Libya, but higher also than Western democracies which we consider our peers such as England, Canada and Germany. Colorado is 18 among the states at 467 and Ohio is not far behind with 449 people per 100,000. England incarcerates one-third of us at 154, Canada is 117, Greece is 102, Italy is 113, Japan is 59 and Germany is 85. Considering the U.S. incarceration rates, Virginia Senator Jim Webb said, "We are either the most evil people in the world or there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system."

Representative Lee has championed Restorative Justice in Colorado in his two terms. Most recently he had great success in the passage of HB 13-1254. The new law includes Restorative Justice Pilot Projects in 4 Colorado judicial districts. Passed last spring and implementing in just a few short weeks on August 7th the bill sets up a fund for restorative justice with a $10 surcharge on all violations excluding traffic. Its focus is on youth diversion and strong data collection, research and education that will complement a growing general statistic that proves the efficacy of Restorative Justice. It also will fund a State Coordinator position.

I sat with Colorado's Restorative Justice State Council last week amidst their implementation prep-work of the new law, and appreciated the comments that District Attorney Stan Garnett (Boulder County, 20th judicial) provided when posed the question of why Restorative Justice is important and how to explain it to other Judicial officials in their language:

He said they need to understand that:

  • It saves time.
  • It saves judicial processing money.
  • It is not just another program alternative and is fair to all involved.

In reports from the Longmont (CO) Police Department's Restorative Justice Programs and the Longmont Community Justice Partnership, Master Police Officer Greg Ruprecht states that youth programs show exponential drops in recidivism (at this writing the rate is 10%, compared to 60-70% nationwide) and high participant satisfaction. Perhaps even more poignant is the tens of thousands of dollars, per case, that is saved from diverting youth from incarceration. In a recent live interview Officer Ruprecht shared his initial doubts about Restorative Justice, coming from a background as a Veteran serving in the Army, he says he was very skeptical at first. And then he saw it in action. To the argument that it "has no teeth" he responded, "it actually has more teeth" and that having to face one's crime and do that truthfully is much harder than being locked away.

Nationwide there are programs doing powerful work in the field and there is legislative action in the works in Massachusetts and Florida. Backed by Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., with support from U.S. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and U.S. Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., the Youth Promise Act, brought forth by many co-sponsors and led by The Peace Alliance, places focus on dismantling the prison-to-school pipeline by effectively implementing programs and providing education and tools that derive from Restorative Justice principles. It will fund evidence-based violence prevention & intervention practices, empower local control and community oversight, save taxpayer money, and provide measurable data that backs up the successes.

On the basic human level of things, given the proof that the stats and savings show, there's a deeper level of justice we are calling for -- one that brings back the humanity to error without losing the safety. One that calls on truth and community building. One that saves our youth from incessant cycling in a sick system and provides them the ample room to rediscover their own light and truth. One that unifies at best, and opens up that condition or possibility at worst, for those harmed and affected with those who've harmed. One that ends cycles of violence or interrupts them and calls us forward to heed the angels of our better selves. One that sees humanity as a given right, and violates this right no longer. One that respects victims and gives them the precedence to process and be supported in a way that gives them a better chance at healing. And one, finally, that says "NO MORE" to the furthering of an already out of control Prison Industrial Complex whose very health depends on the warehousing of people.

As Rep. Lee said as he closed his speech in Toledo:

We, the people, need to insist that restorative justice be implemented in every jurisdiction and in every school. The time for restorative justice is now.
To those skeptics who say, "You will get there when hell freezes over," I remind them that it snowed in Las Vegas last December.