By Christopher Zoukis
King County, Washington is one of the most recent courts in the country to turn to the alternative approach of restorative justice over criminal justice when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders with no previous criminal record.
King County courts already try to use detention sparingly and only for the most violent offenders, and the juvenile division focuses on rehabilitation and education, but restorative justice goes one step further to spare kids from being jailed. Few of the bad decisions and indiscretions perpetrated by youth warrant punishment in the criminal justice system, so this is being lauded as a welcome move that will see vast benefits to both offenders and their greater communities.
Restorative justice, first used in New Zealand in the 1980s, is an alternative to traditional detention and criminal justice punishments. Often offenders meet with their victims, may be assigned mentors, and family members, community members and others are brought into the process, whose aim is to restore relationships and mediate toward agreeable solutions and reparations.
This can take the form of a series of conversations, counseling sessions, time spent in self-reflection, peacemaking circles, community service and other activities. The goal is to keep youth out of the prison system, and to inspire empathy and change, helping young people to see firsthand the consequences of their actions and how they affect others. It fosters a greater sense of accountability and creates mindful connections to feelings, emotions and actions, through group discussion. The end result is fewer youth in detention centres, and fewer sentenced to holding lifelong criminal records that could affect future educational and employment opportunities — which can spur further criminal behavior. The restorative justice approach means that root causes of crimes are addressed. It allows offenders the opportunity to get involved in — and give back to— their communities, sometimes in a very direct way, such as leading mediation or peacemaking circles.
The first case to use restorative justice in King County has been successful thus far. A 15-year-old who had been charged with first-degree robbery for stealing a cellphone and some sneakers is participating in peacemaking circles, checking in with community members, and working out issues with his family, instead of facing two years in prison.
He has been participating in mediation, will lead peacemaking circles, and must complete community service. Community members and justice workers — including a judge — who have worked with the teen have remarked on the change in his attitude and behaviors. More youth will soon be funnelled toward restorative justice methods rather than traditional sentencing.
While new approaches to handling criminal behavior can seem experimental and somewhat time consuming, diversionary practices for low-level offenders should continue to be pursued and given appropriate funding and resources. There are still too many young people across the country encountering the criminal justice system, which can set an ominous tone for their whole lives. To end mass incarceration we must examine systems such as restorative justice, which keep offenders out of the system, along with programs that analyze the root causes of criminal action. If misguided youth can be supported and steered onto better pathways, and given opportunities to help build stronger families and communities, it will go a long way toward changing how our future prison populations look.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com