Can restorative criminal justice help boost trust?

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By Hon. Darlene O’Brien
Washtenaw County Trial Court

With confidence in our criminal justice system at historic lows, can restorative justice practices affect positive change while restoring public trust?

It is said that crime creates a negative and broken relationship impacting the victim, offender, family members, and friends of both, together with the community as a whole.  In our criminal justice system, the offender may be incarcerated, given an opportunity to conform his/her conduct to the rules of society during a probationary period and required to pay monetary restitution.  Individuals harmed by criminal acts can present victim impact statements orally at sentencing or in writing.  Victims are left to seek their own healing.

In our traditional court setting, sentencing occurs in a public courtroom usually crowded with strangers and sometimes media, under tense circumstances, waiting for the pronouncement of fate by a judge.  If the defendant reads a public apology, is it heartfelt, or scripted by counsel in an attempt to minimize punishment?  The environment is rarely conducive to contemplative listening or true dialogue. One wonders how much of what is said is truly processed by the defendant. 

Comparatively, jurisdictions applying principles of restorative justice create a forum for communication between willing participants. In Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC), an opportunity is provided to address both individual and community consequences caused by the crime. Findings from studies of restorative justice practices suggest that these conferences reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms and the desire of victims for revenge.  Victims who participate in VOC are reportedly more satisfied with the justice process by rates between 79-90 percent versus only 59 percent of victims in typical criminal proceedings.  After meeting the offender, some victims’ fears of being re-victimized can be significantly reduced.  By voicing one’s opinions and emotions, those harmed may feel more involved in both the process and community and often report emotional healing.

Offenders also are purported to prefer restorative justice processes and report greater appreciation of the extent of the harm caused by their actions. Explaining what happened, apologizing directly to the victim in a more private forum and paying restitution were important considerations. By listening to and reflecting on the effects of an offender’s behavior, establishing a dialogue and seeing change in a victim’s attitude can help an offender feel worthy of having a second chance at becoming a better person. Reportedly, VOC reduces recidivism for offenders of both violent and property crimes. When used as a complement to criminal justice procedures, restorative practices can result in reduced costs.

Not every offender may be suitable to participate. Some individuals may be so hardened, unstable or manipulative that they are unsuitable for such a process.  Additionally, some offenses like stalking or domestic violence may not be appropriate for VOC. Moreover, many victims may never want to see the person who hurt them again.  If both the offended and the offender, however, have the desire and capacity, and if restorative practices can provide a forum to help heal each as well as our community, should our criminal justice system provide them that opportunity, either before or after sentencing?  Perhaps it can begin restoring public trust in our justice system as well.
 

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