Joyce K. Sebian, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Jaime Koppel, Communities for Just Schools Fund, gave welcoming remarks and an overview of restorative policies and practices. Throughout the session, terms like restorative circles, restorative justice, and restorative practice were discussed, but the common element to understand was the concept of restoration—a way to bring someone back who has veered off course or restore an injustice for the betterment of all.
Stephanie Autumn, American Institutes for Research, provided the background and cultural relevance of this session. Seema Gajwani, Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, shared examples of how restorative practices can be implemented in settings where children interact (like schools) and reduce interactions of youth in the criminal justice system. Both presenters used storytelling to provide illustrative examples that conveyed key concepts of restorative policies and practices.
Gajwani explained the elements of restorative circles. They involve discussion of personal issues, and often use what is known as a centerpiece, an object with emotional meaning. For example, Gajwani brought a bowl that belonged to her mother’s great-grandmother to restorative circles. “Someone hundreds of years ago used that and I share their DNA. So I thought I should bring it,” she said. Emotions and feelings are the value of the circle, she said, and create a democracy among participants. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable helps to create a bond and community over time.
Another element of restorative circles is introductions, allowing everyone to know each other by name. Gajwani asked workshop participants to introduce themselves and share a value that speaks to their relationship in working with children and families. Many participants mentioned compassion, empowerment, respect, and transparency.
During this session, Gajwani provided context for the information presented in the form of three case studies that came from her experience of using a restorative practice approach with the D.C. Attorney General’s Office. These were interspersed throughout the presentation and highlighted some of the key points addressed by both Gajwani and Autumn.
THE INDIGENOUS MODEL OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
Stephanie Autumn attributed her career selection of restorative justice to her experience with the inequities of the justice system in indigenous communities across the United States. She said she was born into activism and has lived in many social justice settings. In 1982, Autumn was mentored by an elder in the community and began to learn more about what is now called restorative practice or restorative justice. She noted that the practice is thousands of years old in the traditions of indigenous people. Part of the research that she has conducted over the past 25 years is about the evidence of peacekeeping and restorative practices. In her experience, she said, Native people and people of color are more embracing of restorative practices in justice systems, schools, and communities.
Autumn emphasized the power of language in her community. She shared with participants her perception in seeing all people as indigenous people, since everyone has an ancestral connection to some land. The indigenous relational worldview is not time oriented, she explained, but rather “it’s built on relationship, not only to each other but all living things. It centers around the premise all living things are equal.” In the relational worldview, there is a more holistic approach to restorative justice. The goal is not to decipher what went wrong but instead to repair the harm, she explained. The indigenous model of restorative practice is a strength-based approach. The circles allow participants to talk about what is working in a family and how to build upon it with existing resources, starting with the family community.
Autumn observed young people are often referred to as “offenders.” In the indigenous model, they are instead referred to by their name. In the indigenous model, she added, there is equity in voice independent of a larger organization, family, or community.
Finally, Autumn explained that as a restorative justice practitioner, her duty is to the young person and family, and she guards them from any harm that might emerge from discussions with service providers, court officials,
and others in the process. In the indigenous model of restorative practices, Autumn said that it is important to introduce the process of talking circles as early as possible, not solely when things go wrong. Restorative justice can be taught by teachers beginning in preschool, through later grades, and even with school administrators. She said, “We want to frame things in reflective, restorative conversation. So restorative practice in its true essence is not a program. It’s a way of being, and that’s why we call it a practice.”
CASE STUDY 1: UNRAVELING THE STORY
Gajwani’s first case study centered on the restorative justice circle of a ninth-grade boy named Joseph who had beaten up a peer named Darren. Both came to the circle with family members, and the facilitator asked the boys and their families to share their experiences. The conversations revealed more to the encounter than was initially apparent. Instead of possible suspension and arrest, the boys and their families reached an understanding through the circle.
Gajwani noted the repercussions if the case had instead gone into the courts: “What we know is that kids who enter the juvenile justice system, their outcomes plummet at that point: chances of high school graduation, employment, getting married. The chances of being in the juvenile or adult justice system again go up as well as chances of substance abuse and risky sexual behavior.” Instead, she said, the restorative circle “did not break a family or traumatize, stigmatize, isolate this boy. The circle built him and the families up. It built community.”
Since then, the prosecutor’s office has built up its restorative justice program and refers cases to it when possible, she said.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE CROSS-SECTIONAL APPLICATION
Autumn noted that restorative practice can fit across many settings. In 1985, she was the director of the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign, funded by the legislature, nonprofits, and Hennepin County. The campaign sought to answer how restorative justice touches humanity through the people served and how those lessons could apply to policy.
Autumn and her colleagues worked on the local level with judges, prosecutors, and school superintendents to discuss how the systems that are serving families function and how to move to an equitable system using restorative practices. The team noticed they were seeing the same families and young people in different systems: justice, education, child welfare, and correctional settings. They began to use a diversionary program with juveniles charged with fifth-degree domestic assault (in Minnesota, defined as physical assault, verbal threat, home invasion, or some stage of aggression).
A young person had the option to go to a family group decision-making conference. Autumn explained the campaign needed to bring representatives from child welfare, justice, law enforcement, and education together to analyze how the model could enhance each respective field and achieve better outcomes.
According to Autumn, Native people and other people of color are disproportionately represented in every “failing system.” She noted that the number of days children miss school through expulsions is essentially a denial for young people of their right to an education. She pondered, “It’s a huge paradigm shift, it’s taking it a step further, and how do we change those policies? How do we start conversations with those mostly impacted?”
Restorative justice practitioners are trained to lead a conversation. Autumn explained, “Parties involved are asked from the beginning for their voluntary participation. If one is forcing a young person or a family into restorative practice, it just ceases to be restorative. Truly [with the] restorative justice practice process, from the minute you meet the young person or the family, they say yes [to participating].” Autumn and her team saw their role as ensuring that the outcome would be positive, that the voices of all would be heard, that there would be an equitable process to follow, and that they all would be the decision makers.
Autumn noted that restorative justice shows itself in a variety of evidence-based practices, such as trauma-harmed or trauma-sensitive settings. An effort to change school climate is a type of restorative justice process. “So restorative justice is not something you set aside,” she said, “but something you braid in with your evidence-based intervention using a bottom-up model.”
CASE STUDY 2: THE POWER OF AGENCY
Gajwani’s second case study highlighted the power of agency in a restorative practice approach. She said she and her colleagues spend time with everyone involved in a crime, including the respondents and their families. Prosecutors can talk with victims about options that include restorative justice. Many victims prefer to pursue restorative justice rather than the option to prosecute.
In this case, a teenage girl chose not to interact in person during a restorative circle, but remained in another room where she wrote comments that she gave to a family member to deliver to the other circle participants. All participants, including the young woman, agreed on the follow-up action, which included personal apologies from the people who had harmed her. “One of the powerful things from this circle was that the victim had a lot of agency and power,” commented Gajwani. “One of the things we
think about is what the victims don’t get out of the justice system and what they do get out of restorative justice. They get the opportunities to ask questions. They get the opportunity to shape the consequence of the behavior. They get agency, voice, and power. . . . [Restorative] conference after conference, victims are empowered. Communities and strength are built.”
She noted that the person harmed can choose restorative justice but that “if . . . for any reason [they] change their mind, they can always decide not to do it, [and] if so it reverts back to the traditional track.” However, she added, “What we find is more victims than you would ever believe prefer restorative justice than the option to prosecute.”
Autumn reiterated that “restorative practices are not something we do to people. It is something we do with or for. It has to be beyond that if we are going to embrace restorative justice as an option for children and families we serve. We have to look at the institution where we are living, working, breathing, and how we will integrate restorative thought, philosophy, and value within those systems.”
In restorative practice process, noted Autumn, people thrive as their authentic selves. Practitioners are not able to promote restorative practice to achieve the best outcomes for young people and families if they are constrained by systems of inequity. Systems change takes time, which may deter people from taking the restorative justice approach. In fact, she reported that she did a study nearly 20 years ago on how much time judges had for every juvenile case. It translated to 7 minutes. Restorative process, on the other hand, can take anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days. It is about having enough time for what the young person or family needs to work through and be able to have a family-centered plan with appropriate resources to move forward.
Autumn also stressed the importance of allowing families the right to select where the process takes place when participating in restorative justice practice. It can take place in a community center; anywhere the young person feels comfortable. There is the need to make spaces of equity so that young people and families can comfortably share what is going on with their lives. She concluded, “The key is they are the decision makers in the circle. It’s not just impacting the child, it impacts you. I feel like my life has changed.”
CASE STUDY 3: FAMILY CONNECTIONS
Gajwani’s final case study was from a time when she facilitated a fifth-degree assault for a 16-year-old young man of color who, she said,
“had all the tags people have placed on him through elementary school, junior high, and high school. In terms of self-regulation, he was described as violent and a bully.” His family and service providers were involved in the restorative conference. Gajwani began by asking the other participants to talk about some of the youth’s positive assets. After some silence, his father expressed his love for his son aloud for the first time, and the father and son connected. “What I am blessed to see time and time again through restorative justice is a place in space for families, adults, children to bare open their selves and truly be open to transforming what has gone wrong and gone right not only in that instance, but as they go forward in their lives,” she said.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF THE PROSECUTOR
Gajwani and her team want prosecutors to change how they think about conflict, crime, respondents, and people who are hurt by crime. Prosecutors want to offer victims choices, agency, and power, she observed, and to prevent future victimization and violence. Gajwani’s team handles a lot of cases from prosecutors that deal with conflict between people, and she said she also wants prosecutors to think about what restorative justice can do for the young people who commit the crime. The purpose is to build empathy and consequence thinking, which are critical points of brain development occurring in these young people.
Another point emphasized to prosecutors is rethinking how they do their work. A newly hired prosecutor in the D.C. Attorney General’s Office accompanied Gajwani to the homes of families with open cases, a practice not often delegated to prosecutors. Recently, this prosecutor had a case where there was potential of gang affiliation and started to have second thoughts about whether restorative justice was the right track for this case. When one of the facilitators asked about her concern, the prosecutor replied, “In the last week, [of] the recent respondents that I had prosecuted in more lenient decisions, three had picked up more serious charges. It’s making me nervous, and I’m reconsidering if this is the right decision for this young person.”
According to Gajwani, this is not an unusual sentiment for prosecutors. Institutionally, she said, prosecutors see failure. They only get to know the youth that come back to the criminal justice system. They talk to the young person’s attorney, the police, and the victims, but never the young person. After speaking to defense attorneys turned prosecutors, a dehumanizing trend of exposure to failure emerged. To change the culture of prosecution in the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, besides offering restorative justice, Gajwani and her colleagues are trying to expose the prosecutors to the young people who are making improvements in their lives. In the past,
the prosecutors would visit large groups of students to lecture on social media safety. Now, there is a plan to have prosecutors sit in circles with young people and talk with them about their struggles and what it means to walk away from conflict. In that way, restorative justice will be used for more than conferences. Gajwani stated, “It is a way of being and solving problems. What we want is for our prosecutors to absorb some of that, not just by having a place to refer victims, nor [just] a place to humanize these respondents, but [a place to] sit in a circle and feel that power.”
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