In recent years, restorative justice programs have been implemented across the country and, in some cases, they have shown to be an effective alternative to our criminal justice system. A new study by researchers at Sam Houston State University adds to the mounting evidence for the benefits of criminal justice reform: They found that when facilitated interactions happen between juvenile offenders and their victims, it actually helped to reduce recidivism rates among the offenders compared to traditional court processing.
The study examined several different restorative justice programs in the upper Midwest, in which the goal is to connect youth offenders to their victim and the community they had hurt. It compared the 284 youths who were assigned to these programs between 2000 and 2005 by the local police to 267 youths who were referred to the traditional juvenile court during that time. Within the restorative justice group, the juveniles were assigned to various levels of interventions based on their and their victims' willingness to participate in the program. Some participated in face-to-face mediation with their victim; some had indirect mediation facilitated by a third party; and some faced a community panel of school teachers, police officers, and community members who served as proxies for the victim. Further, some only received an initial meeting with a restorative justice program staff member.
Their analysis showed that kids processed through juvenile courts committed another crime nearly 50 percent of the time, while those who received just minimal restorative justice committed new offenses only 31 percent of the time. Those who participated in community panels had a recidivism rate of 24 percent. Indirect mediation and direct mediation yielded a recidivism rate of 27 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
"I'm not surprised at all," former State Supreme Justice Janine Geske told me over the phone when I asked her about the study's results. Geske is now a distinguished professor of law at Marquette University Law School, where she started a restorative justice initiative. "In my experience as a restorative justice practitioner and as a judge, this is what I would have expected. If you arrest a juvenile for an offense—particularly if it's not a very serious assault—and they go through the system they tend to get involved in worse and worse crimes."
Geske says it's often more effective for juvenile offender to learn about why what they did was wrong and to face their victims. "A lot of times these kids just think they got caught doing what most people do [without getting caught]. But what they don't ever think about is the impact that their crime had on another human being or on their neighborhood," she explained.
"There was a case in Wisconsin regarding a juvenile who had sprayed graffiti on grave stones at a cemetery," she elaborated. "If he had gone through the system, he would have been put on supervision and ordered to pay a lot of restitution, which he probably couldn't afford. And then he'd be in the system. But instead, a mother whose child was buried in the cemetery was willing to meet with him. Her son was buried under one of the grave sites that he graffitied. She brought an 8x10 picture of her son, sat across from this juvenile, and had a dialog with him. She talked about the fact he had defaced the place where she could be with her son. He had tears running down his cheeks, realizing what he had done to her. Then he asked her, 'How can I help you? How can I fix this?'"
This victim–offender dialogue shifts the blame from the person onto the act, advocates say, and presents offenders with the consequences of their actions. "The offender now sees how his or her conduct has hurt someone, versus them thinking that they just got involved in a technical or legal violation," Geske said. "They go through a change of heart that you don't see often in the criminal system."
They go through a change of heart that you don't see often in the criminal system.
There's still no system in place to determine which offenders get recommended to restorative justice programs and how. In some instances, prosecutors and victims can decline to file a case and suggest restorative justice instead. Once a case goes into the court system, a judge could encourage the option, but Geske said it's still up to the prosecutor and the victim.
In addition, she says this subjective process could lead to problems. "There are victims who have a skewed sense of justice. You can create racial issues in this. A white victim might be much kinder toward a white offender than to a kid of color," she cautioned. "We don't want to start replicating the problem we already have in the criminal justice system." This is something to consider if a national framework for restorative justice is ever implemented.
And Geske admits that in some cases she thinks that restorative justice alone may not be sufficient, but its principles can be introduced into our existing criminal justice system. In the program she set up at Marquette University Law School, law students mediate community panels with post-conviction offenders and their victims at the Green Bay Correctional Institution.
"I work with very serious offenders who have been in the system for a long time, and when we're doing our restorative justice circles, they talk about how, growing up, criminal behavior was ordinary. They're shocked to realize that their crimes are hurting other people and in some cases their own families. It's very beneficial for them to learn this and to be able to help repair the harm," she said. "We have huge waiting lists of offenders who want to participate. I've heard some of them say that they wish they had had this as kids."