Column by Ken Plum
The week of Nov. 15-22 has been designated Restorative Justice Week to draw attention to the important work being done to make offenders take responsibility for their actions and try to repair the harm that they have done. The traditional criminal-justice model of a crime followed by a court conviction and incarceration leaves out the needs of the victim and the community to be restored.
According to an article in the Oct. 25, 2009, issue of Parade, some communities use restorative and punitive justice for serious crimes. In these instances, a burglar may serve a prison term but also be required to make reparations. Some communities use restorative justice instead of the court system for juvenile crime to have juvenile offenders accept responsibility for what they did and to make amends. One community reports that only 10 percent of the young people commit another crime under the restorative approach compared to about 70 percent of those who go through the traditional criminal-justice system. Visit www.restorativejustice.org for more information.
I attended a conference on restorative justice in Richmond recently. Proponents of the new approach make it clear that restorative justice is not a way for offenders to get a lighter sentence or that it is a substitute for the existing court system. It is victim-centered and victim-sensitive that allows victims to have a voice outside the courtroom. It provides an opportunity for offenders to learn how to start changing their behavior. There are several community-based and court-based programs in the state (www.rjav.org). Successful programs report that victims are more satisfied with the outcome of their case, financial restitution is more likely to be paid, and closure is more likely to be felt by the victims and the community. Offender recidivism is reduced, and community safety is increased.
Restorative practices that are a part of restorative justice are used in many school divisions, including Fairfax County Public Schools, to encourage positive discipline. The approach is to change discipline into an opportunity for an offender to take ownership and be responsible for his or her actions. The practices provide the opportunity to identify the harm that has been done and to repair that harm and heal and restore the community. A series of professional approaches and best practices have been identified to implement restorative practices, and these can be taught to all levels of school personnel for implementation.
At a time when one in 31 Americans is involved in the criminal-justice system, it is important that we take a hard look at our system to see how victims might more effectively be considered, anti-social behavior might be changed at an earlier age, and recidivism be reduced. Restorative-justice practices should play a greater role in the future.
Ken Plum is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He represents the 36th District in the House of Delegates.