Sonoma County, California: Restorative Justice

Aug 31, 2013

Restorative justice is an approach to reducing crime and violence that brings together victims, offenders, family and community members to discuss the crime and its impact, then to formally agree on specific actions that would make amends and restore balance to families and the community.

Around a beautifully set table in Sebastopol California, with the freshest possible broiled salmon, perfectly-cooked vegetables, lovely bottles of local white wine, and a just-baked lemon-blueberry cake, Allison brought together some friends who had been active supporters of restorative justice in northern California. By chance (or fate), three nights before, I had watched the brilliant new Public Broadcasting System documentary "Fixing Juvie Justice"  which explores the restorative justice practices of the Maori in New Zealand as they have been adapted to juvenile offenders in Baltimore, Maryland. Our conversation was wide ranging. This is what I learned: 

  • Restorative justice sessions always include victims and offenders; they often include victims, offenders, family, and community members. The sessions or community conferences are generally run by trained facilitators or experienced community leaders.
  • In America, restorative justice efforts can be found in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, West Virginia, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco. And that’s just where this small dinner group knew specific people and programs.
  • Putting restorative justice programs in place is tremendously difficult and is in many ways a massive culture change. Traditional courtroom justice is about establishing guilt and punishment. Restorative justice first and foremost centers on the perspective of the victim and the impact of the offender’s actions. The goal is not a verdict; that a crime has occurred is assumed. The goal is the kind of transformation that occurs when the offender tells his or her side of events and genuinely recognizes the damage or harm done to others. Shame may be a motivator to change behavior as the offender tries to re-connect with families and communities. The solution goes beyond establishing guilt to establishing an agreed upon action plan that restores balance to families and communities. This is a different way of thinking about crime and community values.

As dinner winds down and I dig into another piece of Miranda’s amazing lemon-blueberry layer cake, I consider once again how disconnected our federal government is from the wisdom of local communities. I decide to learn more about the current status of restorative justice. And I start to think through how restorative justice, justice reinvestment and justice reform all fit together.