THE BLOG

The Political Rise of Restorative Justice

Mar 26, 2014 | Updated May 26, 2014

Co-Authored by Dr. Sandra Pavelka

The modern day movement of restorative justice continues to evolve at state and community levels. Jurisdictions have responded to juvenile justice system discontent with revisions to legislative and policy agendas. These responses have effected significant systemic changes by incorporating the victim, offender and community-centric principles in state laws. Further, national legislation currently proposed seeks to lead our country to a promise for America's youth.

Restorative justice, realized in many states and localities as a new framework, views and responds to youth crime with a different lens. The ultimate goal of restorative justice is to repair the harm caused by the crime or wrongful occurrence, while balancing the roles and needs of the victim, offender and community. This approach also seeks to ensure public safety, hold offenders accountable for their crime or wrongdoing, and develop competencies for the offender.

While 37 states have provided for restorative language in statute and codes, the articulation of restorative justice differs generally. A number of laws focus on restorative principles explicitly, with or without reference to the balance approach. Several states specifically reference only the balanced approach mission, while a majority of the states emphasize balanced and restorative justice. Common restorative language in these state laws include: holding juveniles accountable for their offense, involving victims and the community in the justice process, obligating the offender to pay restitution to the victim and/or a victims' fund, and securing safer communities. Statutes or codes that include a balanced approach mission include accountability, community safety and competency development. Balanced and restorative justice language comprehensively includes principles from both paradigms. Through the adoption of restorative justice principles in the states' policy and legislation, this approach has become the norm for juvenile system practice.

One of the United States' most impressive and established juvenile systems is located in Longmont, Colorado, which is also a state that has recently passed into law a self-funding, four-county wide Restorative Justice Pilot Project. The Longmont program, managed by the Longmont Community Justice Partnership, pairs up trained adult and youth facilitators with schools and the local Longmont Police Department. The results and data speak volumes: their recidivism rate as of January 2014 is at 8 percent, compared to a 60-70 percent local and national average for systems not employing restorative justice processes. Not only that, their community is actively engaging in the programs and recently received Federal funding to support the continued success in keeping recidivism stunningly low, with a Longmont Justice Council that comprises of non-criminal justice employees and citizen representatives.

Colorado's new law provides pre-sentencing alternatives for youth that point back to the key principles of accountability (which involve an explicit process of how the youth agrees to make right the harm--often a checklist signed and agreed upon by all parties, that is later checked by the assigned program officer that follows the process all the way through); community safety (by honoring victims needs and also providing a safe environment for cause and effect to be voiced to perpetrators); and for reparation including input from victim, community and perpetrator alike.

On the national level, there is actively growing momentum behind the Youth PROMISE Act (Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education) boasting bipartisan sponsorship from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). The legislation will fund programs focused on prevention and diversionary systems that address, for one, the school-to-prison pipeline by employing a robust approach to the multifold and ongoing issues that plague our schools and communities. Restorative justice programs and practices that are already showing promising results will be funded more fully, as well as other violence prevention programs and tactical approaches to ceasing the cycles of violence and re-offense.

Other key developments include a bill on the table in Massachusetts (S-52), championed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge. In 2012, the State of Washington also passed unanimously into law a measure that promotes and employs restorative justice for youth. There are also bills formulating in Ohio, California, and other states taking action to move quickly and effectively towards passing laws to implement solid answers to the burgeoning prison populations and the relentless cycles of recrimination and violence, while also providing citizens a genuine opportunity to voice grievances and explore and implement solutions together.

The national political will continues to shift towards the power of restorative justice, and its efficacy and tangible data make it hard to deny at very least giving this movement the attention it deserves. As District Attorney Stanley Garnett (Boulder County, CO) confirms: "Restorative justice is not just some pipe dream placebo--it's a time and money saver and stats don't lie: recidivism drops significantly when restorative justice processes are employed."

If political will is any indicator of a significant change in course as it concerns our approach to justice, then the United States is amidst one of the most significant transformations that could keep us from collectively sailing off the edge of the earth. The tide of justice being called for is one of accountability, data that cannot be denied, and a hope for the future of this country as it steers away from its global reputation as the incarceration nation.

Sandra Pavelka serves as Director of Institute of Youth and Justice Studies and Associate Professor of Public Affairs at Florida Gulf Coast University. Dr. Pavelka previously served as Project Administrator of the Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) Project funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, US Department of Justice. Dr. Pavelka serves as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Restorative Justice.