Can the criminal justice system be restorative?


By Hon. Darlene O’Brien
Washtenaw Co. Trial Court

“Crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right.”  ~ Howard Zehr

A recently released Harvard study reports that nearly half of 18 to 29-year-old millennials believe America’s criminal justice system is unfair. Many acknowledge that our system of justice is not perfect, but laud it as one of the best in the world. Can it be improved? Could restorative justice practices help rebuild confidence in our criminal justice system while reducing recidivism and curbing costs?

Washtenaw County officials and residents recently had the pleasure of joining in discussions with Fred Van Liew, a former prosecuting attorney from Des Moines. I was fortunate to attend an informative and thought-provoking breakfast session at Washtenaw County’s 200 N. Main building.

Currently Mr. Van Liew serves as the restorative practices coordinator for the Portland Center for Restorative Justice in Portland, Me.  His appearance here was sponsored by University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Healing Communities, Friends of Restorative Justice of Washtenaw County, the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the U-M Law School, Students Organized Against Prisons, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, St. Mary’s Church of Chelsea, Church of the Good Shepherd UCC, St. Francis of Assisi Church, Challenging Racism and the Social Justice Council of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, together with the Prison Creative Arts Project. 

Mr. Van Liew discussed his 15-year experience as a prosecuting attorney involved in bringing restorative justice and victim offender conferencing to Des Moines, located in a county with a population roughly comparable to Washtenaw. In Des Moines, the prosecutor’s office created victim liaison positions. Upon request of a victim, a liaison could set up a restorative justice conference that included the person(s) harmed as well as the person who caused the harm. These victim mediation sessions often occur before sentencing. In some circumstances, however, restorative meetings to consider the harm done and what the offender can do to ameliorate that harm are arranged prior to the prosecutor formally filing criminal charges. It is important to note that restorative sessions do not occur if the individual harmed is not amenable, nor in cases of domestic violence. 

Seated next to me was a bright engaging woman whose mother was killed when a 15-year-old unlicensed driver T-boned her car at an intersection. She detailed her journey as a “victim” (a term she disliked) who appeared at each of the youth’s hearings to address the need for continuing his detention. Finding the court proceedings to be wanting, she asked to meet the youth responsible for cutting short her mother’s life. That meeting had a dramatic and positive impact on both the woman and the offender. Her narrative provided a compelling example in favor of victim impact conferencing.

Could Washtenaw County benefit by expanding its current restorative and peacemaking practices beyond family domestic relations and juvenile justice cases into the criminal realm? Mr. Van Liew has opened the conversation and many facets of our community appear interested in pursuing the potential. I look forward to continue this discussion in more depth subsequently.

 I close with another quote from Howard Zehr, a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of restorative justice. “Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance.”              

 ~ Howard Zehr



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