THE BLOG
10/26/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, "Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control." The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color -- or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, "five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites." And according to The Sentencing Project, "African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)." These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil -- a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.

Similarly, mainstream domestic and sexual violence programs do little outside of the criminal justice system to support survivors and communities in holding abusive people accountable for their actions. According to Rev. Susan Chorley, Director of Renewal House, a domestic violence shelter in Boston, MA, "Many of the survivors we are working with don't simply want their abuser to be arrested or locked up -- they are searching for ways to keep their partner a part of their community while naming the abuse and demanding it to stop." Unfortunately, the system maintains a prescribed method of dealing with domestic violence: from filing restraining or protection orders to incarcerating abusers without getting at the root of the problem. How do we bring communities together to break down the isolation of abuse and violence? That is the critical question that restorative justice can help to answer.

Aside from mass incarceration and domestic/sexual violence, the criminal justice system also fails students at a number of levels and many experts argue that it forces too many students --particularly minorities -- out of the school system often for minor, non-violent infractions. There is rising concern from teachers and parents to judges and researchers that zero tolerance school discipline policies increase dropout rates and lead to eventual incarceration. The U.S. Department of Education projected that there were more than 3.3 million out-of-school suspensions and 128,570 expulsions in 2006. In March 2012, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled the Civil Rights Data Collection project with data from 7,000 school districts and more than 72,000 schools that illustrated serious disparities in the impact of zero tolerance school discipline policies on children of color and children with disabilities. African American students are over 3 ½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers and students with disabilities are over twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. In districts with populations of more than 50,000 students, over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement are Hispanic or Black.

In Massachusetts, the Children's Defense Fund partnered with the Harvard Kennedy School to research the 60,000 school expulsions and suspensions during the 2009 - 2010 school year in Massachusetts. Of those, about 30,000 were "unassigned offenses"--nonviolent, noncriminal offenses, which can include minor behavioral issues such as swearing, talking back to a teacher, and truancy. Of the approximately 30,000 unassigned offenses, some two-thirds received out of school suspension, resulting in 57,000 lost days of school. Furthermore, since schools are not currently required to report "unassigned offenses" resulting in exclusions of up to 10 days for regular education students, the estimated actual number of disciplinary exclusions is likely at least two to three times the number reported.

The need for alternative modes of dealing with problems, then, is evident. Already, restorative justice practices have led to fewer dropout rates and suspensions. In Duval County, FL, for example, schools that implemented restorative justice practices reduced suspensions by over fifty percent and saw violations to the Student Code of Conduct decrease by roughly a third during the 2011-12 academic year. Similarly, in Denver North High School, administrators are crediting restorative justice practices for a significant increase in academic achievement as well as a 58 percent decrease in suspensions.

The November 3rd summit at Harvard Law School seeks to explore further how restorative justice can be employed in a number of settings where traditional systems have failed. Currently at capacity, the summit has already attracted over two hundred registrants from Massachusetts, California, New York, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Delaware, Washington D.C., and Maine.

The Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force is comprised by group of individuals and organizations from diverse perspectives deeply committed to promoting the practices of restorative justice to rehabilitate, restore, and fortify communities. By initiating events and encouraging discussions, the Task Force hopes to sustain the existing momentum and nourish a more cohesive restorative justice movement throughout the Commonwealth. Members come from diverse organizations, including Renewal House -- a program of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry -- the Children's Defense Fund, the Massachusetts Coalition to Dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, the Charles Houston Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, Homicide Support Services, the Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, the Cambridge Restorative Justice Circles Working Group, and JUST Circles, the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, UMass-Boston Center for African, Caribbean and Community Development, and the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.