Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Instead of incarceration, why not explore Restorative Justice?

by Natalie M. Holbrook, Ypsilanti resident working for the American Friends Committee,

[one woman's story of how she helped get a program started in Wisconsin where a judge was the initiator, and a personal story:]

...Ninety percent of men and women incarcerated return to our communities, often facing numerous obstacles to becoming upstanding, fully participating citizens. The more we rely on incarceration as the main tool for dealing with social problems in our communities, the more problems will arise.

We are living in economically depressed times. People are struggling to find work. Some suffer from severe drug and alcohol addictions in our community. Do we think by sending someone to jail for a week or two (or months on end) we are going to make the problems in his or her life go away? Or is it safe to say that going to jail for a stint may actually exacerbate some of the circumstances that may have compelled a person to commit a crime in the first place? I assert that sending people to lock up will lead to job terminations and will increase the need for some people to commit property crimes.

Ypsilanti Police chief Matt Harshberger says that the same folks are continually arrested but turned away because of jail overcrowding and that they keep on committing crimes becasue there is no punishment issued. But what if we looked at alternatives to punishment and actually assessed what it was that lead to the commission of various crimes? The American Friends Service Committee has published a book intitled "Beyond prisons: A New interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System," by Magnani and Wray.

In synthesizing experts on restorative justice, Magnani and Wray state, "For communities to claim authority, they must solve their own problems. Resources need to be redirected to education, health, recreation, and social-service systems, and the hard work of conflict resolution must be practiced between people at the neighborhood level.

Rather than relying on police as mediators, volunteers can be trained to help conflicting parties resolve differences. The community justice and restorative justice movements have shown that family conferencing, circle sentencing, and other group processes can provide mechanisms for communities to solve problems without undue reliance on threats and sanctions. [these practices are working all over the country]

As a community, I think it would benefit us to explore restorative justice and community mediation concepts. We could truly become a community dedicated to developing innovative tools and mechanisms for dealing with deep-rooted problems - joblessness, poverty, racism, drug and alcohol addiction, illiteracy, cyclical violence, and more.

Jailing people is a short-term, inadequate solution to long-existing, complex social problems. According to the authors of "Beyond Prisons," restorative justice - also known as transformative justice - "shift(s) the definition of crime from a breaking of legal codes to an act of harming another person of a community of people. The question becomes, 'How do we heal the harm?' not 'How do we punish the criminal?' Implementation of restorative justice practices would shift the goal of the justice system away from punishment and retribution (or revenge) and replace it with a healing approach that addresses the needs of survivors, offenders, and the community."

Besides exploring alternative ways for dealing with harms committed in a community, it would also be beneficial to develop a task force dedicated to evaluating existing resources and social service agencies that offer comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment for low-income people. If there are no comprehensive programs, then they will need to be created - jail should not be used as a drug-treatment center.

I hope that we can expand community conversations on crime to include alternatives to jailing people and to develop lasting solutions that begin to heal the complex harms impacting all of the people living in our community.