Volunteering for restorative justice

December 13, 2008

In November I started volunteering as a community representative for the University of Colorado at Boulder restorative justice program. I have so far participated in four community accountability boards, which bring together a student offender, two facilitators, and two to three community representatives. The goal of the conference is to allow the student to tell their story fully without fear of repercussions, to discuss who may have been harmed by their actions and the impact those actions had on the greater community, and to come up with a list of concrete things the student can do to help repair those harms. The hope is also that by talking with and listening to non-student members of their community the student will feel a bit more connected to the greater community in which they live. The offenses for which students typically end up in restorative justice are things such as nuisance party tickets and inordinate noise tickets.

I like the concept behind restorative justice; the emphasis on repairing harm rather than punishing makes sense to me. I also think it is important to try to connect the student with members of the community and have them think about the harm they may have caused; if a student feels connected to the people in their community then hopefully they will be more likely to think about the impact of their actions in the future.

However, it is hard to tell whether the students are really taking away from the conference what we hope they are. The fact is that they are there because they got a ticket, meaning they broke the law. Sometimes it seems difficult to take the focus of the conference off of the fact of their law-breaking, and the student’s main motivation seems to be to not break the law again – not because they truly care about their neighbors so much as because they do not want to get another ticket. Although the community members in the conference, including myself, try to talk about the harms and discuss why noise can disturb someone, I question how effectively that message gets through to the student.

In addition, although the agreement items – things to repair the harm – we come up with are mutually decided upon with the student, I think it is challenging to keep them from sounding like punishments. In order to be fair to all the students who come through the program, there are guidelines for how many hours each student needs to do for a given type of ticket. Thus, we are in fact forcing something upon the student, not the exact look of the items but the need for a certain amount of them to exist. There is of course much flexibility within this process, and the student must agree to each item; we cannot force them to any particular thing. However, there is still, to me, an underlying slight sense of punishment, and I wonder if any of the students feel that way as well.

I am not sure how the concerns I have could be remedied. Part of what I am experiencing here may be simply the disappointment of an imperfect implementation of a perfect-sounding theory. I have only worked with two different sets of facilitators but I already see that their skill varies widely (I do not think the facilitator training is particularly extensive). The ability of the facilitator can certainly impact how effective the process is for the student.

I am thinking that the situation where a student has already received a ticket is not the ideal time to get them to connect with their community. It is of course natural that they will be concerned with not breaking the law again. I am imagining that some form of dialogue or community-building between students and their non-student neighbors, that is not tied to anybody having done something illegal, could be more effective at building bridges and encouraging the students to actually want to be respectful of their neighbor’s needs. When people know each other and care about each other to some degree they will first of all be more likely to not cause disturbances in the first place, and second of all be more capable of talking out and resolving conflicts that arise before it gets to the point of someone receiving a ticket. This is the ideal we should be striving for.

I think I would enjoy more working with people in situations unrelated to law-breaking, and in particular I think I would enjoy working on building connections between people. My idea of a neighborhood dialogue or community-building event is still nascent, but I intend to research if any such thing exists and think some more about the exact form such an event could take.

In the meantime, I will continue being a community representative for restorative justice conferences. My understanding is that the ideal model of restorative justice is one where the conference is called whenever one party causes harm to another, in a process detached from legal process, and it is only in our imperfect society that it is implemented within the legal system. Thus, despite its imperfections, I think restorative justice certainly has potential to make a difference, and is one step along the path to peace.

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Human Rights Day 2008

December 11, 2008

Yesterday, Dec. 10, was International Human Rights Day 2008 and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world…

It is utterly depressing to me that 60 years later, there are still millions of people whose human rights are violated every day. We can do better, far better.

In honor of the 60th anniversary, Amnesty International made a video titled The Price of Silence. It is beautiful:


Imagine compassion

December 7, 2008

At my Unitarian church this morning, our speaker was Dahlia Wasfi, M.D., a peace activist with an Iraqi father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother. Using a mix of personal photographs and depressing statistics, she spoke strongly for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the United States from Iraq. Immediately following her talk, I sang with the choir John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” a beautiful and appropriate song with powerful lyrics such as “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” At the end I felt compassion and a strong agreement that the United States has no business being in Iraq and should get out.

I was therefore deeply disturbed by the reactions of other people. I heard several people say that they thought her talk was “over the top,” that she had an “edge,” and that leaving Iraq was “complicated.” I even heard indications that some people were questioning the truth of the statistics and claims in her talk. Many of these same people do not think we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, and yet now that we are there they seem unwilling to admit the extent of damage that our military presence there has and is continuing to cause. I am disappointed that this is the reaction from individuals in a liberal community.

Yes, her talk was strongly worded, and perhaps that was just not the right technique to get through to these people. I agree that I would have liked more of a focus on the personal impact, but the pictures said more than enough to evoke my compassion: some of the most striking were a contrast of herself as a happy 4-year-old in Basrah with a 3-year-old whose parents were killed by American troops last summer, a photo of a hospital destroyed by American bombs, and a photo of an American soldier giving a thumbs up and a grin over the body of an Iraqi she helped torture to death.

No, all violence is not going to magically stop when American troops leave Iraqi, but I can guarantee it won’t stop as long as we are there. I don’t want to hear excuses for why getting out is “complicated.” I don’t care what the latest reason for staying is. The simple fact of the matter is that the Iraqis see us as invaders, not liberators, and they want us to leave. And if they see us as invaders then that’s what we are. It is unacceptable to have invaded a country, to kill civilians (or anyone, for that matter), to destroy hopitals, to cause thousands of people to become refugees, and then to insist that getting out is complicated. Leaving Iraq may be “complicated” from an intellectual, strategical, or economic point of view, but that does not change the fact that it is the compassionate and right thing to do.

If all of us, every day, based our actions on compassion for other human beings, we would have peace. I challenge each of you to make an effort every day to live as a compassionate person, with awareness of everyone’s shared humanity, and to base your decisions in that compassion.