Volunteering for restorative justice

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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