The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, yet holds 25 percent of the people who are behind bars. America’s overreliance on mass incarceration has caused great harm to families and communities, disproportionately affecting people of color, poor people, and people with mental illnesses and disabilities. The U.S. spends $80 billion a year to keep people locked up, yet it’s not clear this has made us any safer. Research shows that isolating people in prisons and jails fails to address the underlying reasons for their crimes and can increase the likelihood they will re-offend.
Restorative justice provides an alternative that can help break the cycle of over-incarceration for many offenses. Restorative practices focus on repairing the harm that has been done, rather than simply punishing someone who has committed an offense by locking them up. Restorative practices in the criminal justice system, including peacemaking circles, mediation, and family conferencing, bring people who have committed crimes together with victims of crime, their families, and other community members to identify and address the damage caused by crime..
The King County Juvenile Court, for example, recently used a peacemaking circle to address a juvenile robbery. The case was a serious one: a 15-year-old young man stole two pairs of tennis shoes from another teenager, using a BB gun to threaten the victim. Under juvenile sentencing laws, the young man faced two years in prison plus the lifelong burden of a felony record, despite the fact that he had no previous criminal history.
Instead of pushing for a quick prosecution and jail sentence, the county brought together the juvenile, his family, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, school officials, and victims’ advocates to discuss the impact of the robbery. In peacemaking circles over a year, the young man who committed the robbery owned up to his mistake. He wrote a letter of apology to the victim, got a job, re-engaged in school, and completed community service hours. He was sentenced to 12 months of probation, with ongoing accountability to his peacemaking circle and 96 hours of community service.
Those who have taken part in restorative justice circles say they empower participants. This can lead to improved outcomes for all involved. When victims of crime are allowed to take an active role in the disposition of their cases, they are more likely to feel that their suffering has been recognized and acknowledged by both the offender and the state. Likewise, when offenders confront the harm their actions have caused others, they often experience remorse and a desire for change.
Because they offer youthful offenders an opportunity for learning and growth, restorative justice practices can be especially effective in juvenile justice programs. New Zealand has required another form of restorative practices (called Family Group Conferences) for almost all juvenile crimes for the past 20 years. Restorative practices in New Zealand haven’t replaced the use of incarceration in appropriate sentences, but sentences produce better outcomes because they are developed with the input of all involved. Restorative justice affirms that young people have an increased capacity for change and seeks to promote that change.
Our current system of mass incarceration is unsuccessful and unsustainable. By recognizing crimes are committed not in isolation but in the context of communities, restorative justice offers a powerful way to do better.
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