Local restorative justice effort interested in alternatives

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by Cynthia Price

Legal News

Some may refer to it as a paradigm shift, many think of it as augmenting the current justice system, but in total a lot of Grand Rapidians think Restorative Justice (RJ) is a good idea.

The basic difference between the traditional criminal justice system approach and that of RJ is reflected in the questions each asks. According to The Little Book of Restorative Justice by RJ pioneer Howard Zehr, the three questions the traditional criminal justice system asks are "What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve?" whereas Restorative Justice processes ask "Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?"

Zehr's contention is that there is a world of difference in those two approaches. RJ is victim-focused, though it also respects the offender, if he or she is willing to take responsibility and act on that responsibility.

A group of citizens meeting under the name Grand Rapids Restorative Justice Initiative (GRRJI) would like to see substantial movement toward RJ practices in this area. GRRJI follows on a long tradition of Kent County citizens interested in RJ principles, including a faith-based group called Kent County Restorative Justice Coalition, which has met for a decade under the auspices of the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism (GRACE).

GRRJI started meeting a little over a year ago, called together by attorney and city commissioner David LaGrand, who had been discussing the possibility with former Judge Patrick Bowler (and others) for several months.

Bowler felt the group should be more formal and spearheaded the writing of bylaws and formation of a board. He has found himself chairing that board since June of this year.

The board's secretary is Cara Fedewa of the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) which, under Executive Director Jonathan Wilmot, has long had an interest in RJ.

In a related move, DRC brought in one of the founders of the United States RJ movement, Mark Umbreit, currently Professor and Director at the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota, for a well-attended luncheon lecture at Cathedral Square Nov. 18.

The GRRJI co-sponsored, and people directly involved with RJ initiatives were able to meet with Umbreit earlier that morning.

Umbreit reiterated the questions delineated by Zehr. He said he was amazed that RJ had taken off to the degree that it has in this country; his early experience in the 1970s was that it was often marginalized.

Umbreit then focused on the differences in the understanding of "accountability" evidenced by the current justice system and RJ systems. In the former, "accountability means taking your punishment." In RJ, accountability means owning

up to responsibility for the harm

done and working to repair that

harm -- "putting things right," as Zehr states it.

And putting things right is at the core of RJ activity. Determining whether that takes the form of direct restitution -- for example, paying to repair something damaged by vandalism -- or some kind of indirect but healing action, is part of the RJ process.

Umbreit further discussed the methodologies used in RJ, which vary widely. In most but not all instances, a face-to-face dialogue process takes place. On occasion, written letters or videos are substituted, based on the needs of the individual victim.

In-person meetings always involve a neutral facilitator of some sort, and may engage just the victim and the offender, or add immediate family and support personnel of each. Yet other models, often called "circles," involve a wide variety of community stakeholders. Most result in a written agreement about how to put things right.

Most often, the case-by-case nature of RJ means that there are variations. For example, Cara Fedewa said that a recent conference involving arson was attended by the firefighter who responded to the call.

The majority of programs will not follow up on an offender-initiated dialogue; it is an absolute requirement that the victim or person harmed must agree to the meeting.

Jon Wilmot explains that there is a strong link between community dispute resolution and mediation and the principles of RJ. Wilmot says that it was basically a belief in those same RJ principles that caused citizens to bring about the DRC over 23 years ago.

DRC's Victim-Offender Mediation program has operated since then, albeit with changes that have moved it increasingly toward RJ. Though of course there is a screening process for appropriateness, the program will accept a wide variety of cases, including those initiated years after the criminal offense.

Despite this long history, Wilmot gives LaGrand credit for leveraging the tremendous interest and moving RJ forward in Grand Rapids and Kent County.

GRRJI made possible an intriguing pilot project, working with the Grand Rapids city attorney, Catherine Mish. Mish agreed to refer every other case in three categories of offenses -- removing property not one's own (basically shoplifting), malicious destruction of property, and meddling and tampering with property not one's own -- to DRC for an RJ process, provided that the victim and offender agree. Fedewa coordinates the project, and works with retail stores on the shoplifting offenses.

Local researchers will then use the non-RJ cases as a control group, and compare results. Calvin College Instructor Joe Kuilema says, "I'm a social worker and a community organizer, and one of the biggest problems that communities face is the judicial system and people feeling like they don't have a say in it. Restorative justice is sort of a natural avenue to a more community and victim focus." Kuilema, Dr. Patrick Gerkin from Grand Valley State University, and Ian Borton of Aquinas compose the research team. They feel the project is unique because of the highly-correlated control group.

This is not to imply that there is not a great deal of research already in existence. In fact, Borton's doctoral thesis evaluated several cases in the Ohio restorative justice system to determine what factors made a case likely to proceed once initiated.

The initial evaluative results are due back in January, but Mish says, "I think it's a worthy project in terms of a trail program. We'll keep it going longer regardless of the six-month results," which will help in evaluation.

Ultimately, RJ is about a more effective way of keeping communities safe. As David LaGrand points out, the current system is not working particularly well to eliminate crime. "We have five times as many people in prison now as we did in 1972. And we need to look at the damage we do by putting people in jail."

While almost everyone interviewed made the point that there is no intention of fully replacing the current criminal justice system with a restorative justice model, most felt the limited use of RJ would result in more victim satisfaction and less re-offending, therefore less crime.

A comprehensive RJ program is also more cost-effective. Michigan spends more than $30,000 per prisoner per year on incarceration, and has the 11th highest incarceration rate in the nation, increasing annually since 2003. Other states have found RJ to cost much less, and to improve community satisfaction and safety. The GRRJI will also be researching comparative costs.

Bowler says the GRRJI is starting work to hold open community meetings on RJ in 2010. For more, e-mail info@

restorative justicegr.org.

Published: Wed, Dec 2, 2009