It may seem strange to many of us that someone would decide to talk to the person who assaulted them instead of wanting that person in juvenile detention, yet it is a route that more and more people are taking. Restorative justice is a practice used to fill in the holes in our justice system. In the United States, we are laser focused on retribution —giving out long prison sentences based on the immorality of a crime — while any actual justice falls to the wayside. Why does our form of justice tend to feel more like revenge? We try to make offenders feel the pain they’ve caused by locking them up; we believe this will teach them a lesson. On the contrary, state prisoners in America have an 83 percent chance of being rearrested within nine years of their release, according to the National Institute of Justice. Apart from what this system does to the mentality and prospects of those found guilty, it completely ignores the victim’s need for justice. It assumes that those who were injured by the crime are satisfied to see their offender suffer and have their future taken away.
In schools, this threatens the futures of children. Suspension, expulsion, and Juvenile Hall are the standard punishments to students who cause harm at school. Basically, students are told that they are not fit for the school environment, so they should leave it. This is a model that values exclusion adjustment. By taking students out of class, it threatens their education in the long-run; suspension correlates to an almost 20 percent lower graduation rate and higher likelihood of imprisonment according to the Brookings Institution.
It is a messy process that requires time and energy from students and staff, and may yield no clear resolution. In other words, it can be an administrative nightmare.
In recent years, restorative justice has become an increasingly popular alternative to this punishment model in schools. Both the person harmed and the person responsible volunteer to share their experiences in a circle with family and friends who are there to support them. At the end of the session, the victim decides what they want going forward and the group works together to meet that request. The process aims to aid everyone involved in becoming better adjusted to their environment, and less likely to do harm again. It is a messy process that requires time and energy from students and staff, and may yield no clear resolution. In other words, it can be an administrative nightmare.
Yet, it is gradually being employed in high schools across the country, including at Berkeley High School, because it offers results that punishment doesn’t. In Alameda County, youth who participated in a restorative justice programs instead of or in addition to their sentence were 44 percent less likely to reoffend than those placed in the county’s juvenile justice system. Restorative justice keeps kids in school where they can continue to learn, and it engages them in discussion with the person they’ve harmed. This means they must acknowledge how they harmed someone else, not just be told that what they did was wrong. When students are pushed straight towards suspension, no reparations are made for the person harmed, and often speaking up about what happened to them is very difficult. They may even feel guilty for causing the person who harmed them to be punished. These sessions can empower the person affected because it allows them to have their voice and their full story heard by people they trust.
The program is not without its flaws. Some students, like Andrew Matthews of Communication Arts and Sciences, feel that restorative justice does not do enough to punish those responsible, and leaves the person who was harmed dissatisfied. Perhaps this is a natural response to such a different approach to justice than we’re used to. Restorative justice is aimed at mutual healing through open expression. That’s a radical change in seeking justice, and the lack of punishment can feel the same as letting the responsible person off the hook. But we’ve tried punishment. We’ve been trying it for hundreds of years with kids and in our prison system to a similar end: offenders get arrested soon after release, suspended kids drop out, and victims in both cases are left to cope with their feelings alone.