June 9, 2017 \ Geoff Birmingham
Restorative Justice – an alternative to court justice

Several years ago we produced a series of videos for Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ).  The idea behind restorative justice is that addressing certain crimes outside of the courtroom can have beneficial outcomes for all those who are affected by the crime – the victim, the perpetrator, their respective families, and the community at large.

Frequently, a case is referred to C4RJ by a police officer who has arrested someone for a crime (often a teenage boy, but sometimes an adult) and who the officer feels is a good candidate for restorative justice – an individual who recognizes he made a bad mistake and is willing to face his victim in a circle to apologize and to answer tough questions. Facing the victim, as well as other members of the circle, is not easy.

Though difficult, the benefit to the perpetrator is that he avoids a trial and a criminal record. Through a series of exercises and community service that he performs between the opening and closing circles, he also hopefully learns why he made his mistake, the real impact it had on others, and how to make better decisions in the future. The victims often benefit because they are given a forum to ask questions and get answers, which a trial with competing attorneys usually doesn’t provide. The victim can, also, feel a sense of healing from the experience.

When I decided last year that I wanted to do some volunteer work, C4RJ came to mind, and I went through the training to become a circle facilitator. The facilitator works most directly with the perpetrator, guiding him through exercises to help him understand how and why he committed his crime, processing with him what the victim said in the opening circle, crafting a letter of apology to the victim, and helping him find appropriate volunteer opportunities as a gesture of reparation.

Over the past month, I worked on my first case with a young man who attempted, in collaboration with his girlfriend, to rob a woman late one night in Boston. Here’s what I observed during the experience of participating in the opening circle, working with Thomas (not his real name), and then attending the closing circle earlier this week:

  • The circles can be emotionally-charged: both Thomas and his victim needed tissues!
  • Thomas had no idea how much he hurt his victim, mentally and emotionally, until she explained it to him
  • Kids who face barriers in their lives without adult support to fight through them can easily get lost
  • As an adult trying to give Thomas some support, it took a lot of work!
  • The reasons for what drives a person’s behavior are often hidden – my co-facilitator and I had to probe a lot before we learned a key challenge Thomas was struggling with and how that affected his actions
  • The juvenile justice system sounds like a very jaded arena; both the defense and prosecuting attorneys in the circle appreciated having an alternative to their usual options for resolving a case

After experiencing the closing circle, I feel pretty confident that Thomas won’t revert to his previous ways. But I do wonder how well he will manage when he doesn’t have a social worker, a caring defense attorney, and a group of volunteers to be there for him.