Restorative Justice Coalition promotes balance of needs in addressing crimes



By Cynthia Price
Legal News

If members of the Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan succeed, resolution of wrongful actions will call for the community to figure prominently right next to the person or people wronged and the person or people committing the wrong.

Or, as the group’s mission puts it, “The purpose of the Restorative Justice Coalition is to bring together crime victims, those who commit crimes, and the community in order to promote safety, accountability, and healing for all involved.”

The group is a non-profit coalition advocating for the Restorative Justice (RJ) paradigm, with a board taken from a broad array of interested parties: researchers, faith-based activists, social justice workers, attorneys, professors.

While there are specific programs and actions associated with RJ, it is actually a way of looking at how to bring about justice in order to get better results than the punishment-based criminal justice system has.

As board members will point out, prison populations continue to increase. While Michigan saw five years of decline and is still well below its 2007 peak, there were minimal increases in 2012 and 2013, and continual substantial increases  between 1972 and 2007. Of course, there have been many reasons for these increases, but they are costly and wasteful in terms of both monetary and human capital.

But what about victims? Research has shown repeatedly that those harmed and the families of those harmed feel dissatisfied by the traditional way of handling crime.

So RJ promotes a meeting of both parties to help “put things right.” Since the community as a whole is often harmed as well, specific community members may also participate, but it is important to have the full consent of everyone involved before entering into the process.

Most of those who believe in RJ are not advocating for a complete replacement of the criminal justice system with RJ practices, but promote its benefits in addressing some categories of wrongful action comprehensively and in furthering the healing process along with traditional sentences and punishments.

In fact, many would like to take a step back and start with instituting  those practices outside of the criminal justice system altogether. The RJ Coalition of West Michigan has decided in the near term to focus on advocating for neighborhood associations and schools to try RJ problem-solving.

It is not the group’s intent to become the “doer” of RJ programs, according to Chair Carol Rienstra. “We’re more a network of interested persons representing different parts of the community urging organizations and institutions to think about the big picture. What are the services that are restorative in the neighborhoods and the schools, as well as in our criminal justice system?”

Working with the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, the Coalition has met with the Grand Rapids Public Schools board — Coalition board member and RJ advocate (and attorney) David LaGrand is on the GRPS?board. Some members of the group attended a GRPS-sponsored training, but found it to be less specific than they had hoped.

Rienstra and AnnMarie Soules Smith, an attorney at the Law Offices of Smith and Smith who retired after a 25-year career in criminal justice with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department,  said they thought that GRPS regarded RJ as one of many solutions in an attempt to reduce their high expulsion rates. Schools had taken the names of the coalition members who came to the training, seeming to regard them more as a resource to call in.

“Our goal as a restorative justice coalition is to walk alongside the community, to keep the fire under this initiative,” said Soules Smith, the coalition’s treasurer. “We might be a little purist; most of us were trained in RJ and there are criteria that you follow. But I think they’re throwing every possibility they can at the problem, and they don’t seem to be committed to a specific practice across the board that everybody would be trained in. And that’s OK, but we think there would be better accountability if they followed a strictly RJ model.”

The group is continuing to meet with the school district to see how they can work together.

At the same time, both Rienstra and Soules Smith are very excited about a pilot project the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan is conducting at Godfrey Lee Middle School with the full cooperation of GRPS. “Restorative circles” will include separate pre-conference meetings with all parties involved in a harmful action, including the parents; a restorative conference where everyone can explain their view of what happened and offer suggestions about how the harm can be redressed; and a written plan all stakeholders agree on.

These are, in fact, the elements of many RJ practices.

The group that was one of the precursors to the RJ Coalition, the Grand Rapids Restorative Justice Initiative, also conducted a pilot project, in that case with the courts, covered in the Grand Rapids Legal News 12/02/2009. That eventually came to an end in 2011, but Soules Smith says the board has not given up on advocating for RJ in the court system, merely changed its short-term advocacy focus to something they regard as “low-hanging fruit.”

She adds, “Restorative Justice interrupts the cycle of violence and of offending. It brings together the victim and the person whose actions caused harm, but it’s not like we’re trying to decide if you’re a good or a bad person, just how to heal the hurt. A lot of folks don’t care for change, but we have to keep pushing for this.”

“We owe it to folks to think this through, in terms of how we engage with people who have broken the law and with people who are seeking some kind of justice,” commented Nikki Baker, a?Criminal Justice professor at Grand Rapids Community College and RJ Coalition board member. 

The movement toward establishing RJ?as an alternative model has a lot of allies. Baker says, “When I was working probation for the 17th Circuit Court Family Division, I saw the work we were doing as infusing restorative practices and not even knowing it. But I feel it’s my responsibility to educate our future criminal justice practitioners on the importance of restorative justice. We’re fortunate in that our Juvenile Detention Center is using a model of RJ as far as behavioral management, so I can show that to my students.”

The Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan intends to put together a roster of people who can speak to the public on the subject of RJ. The coalition will also hold a candidate forum at 7 p.m. on Sept. 23 in the Loosemore Auditorium of Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus to ask candidates for office where they stand on RJ and related issues. 


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