Restorative Justice

Joshua Johnson-Domio

Corrections - CSU Chico

Final Paper


In this current era of corrections the community is used to seeing the criminals of society dealt with using retributive justice, the theory of justice that prefers punishment as the best response to crime. The theory of retributive justice defines crime as a violation of the state, focuses on establishing guilt for past offenses, makes punishment the definition for offender accountability, replaces one social injury with another (incarceration or punishment), and creates adversarial relationships between the victim and offender (Zehr 2001). It’s hard not to wonder what kind of impact does this theory have on victims and offenders? In one particular murder case the state “stole the crime”, in a sense, away from the victims family and decided the offender did not need to be punished. Punishment is used as a response to crime in retributive justice in order to deter abusers and stimulate behavioral change, however California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation and has major overcrowding issues within the prisons. If the main goal of the correctional system is to prevent crime, then the theory of retributive justice isn’t the answer. The correctional goal should be to restore both the victim and offender, as well as their relationship, and to focus on repairing the social injury that has been caused rather than punishing or not punishing the offender and completely ignoring the victim. The main focus of the correctional system should be on the justice theory of restoration.

One night in Sanford, Florida a man named George Zimmerman, who was a local neighborhood watch volunteer, was patrolling the neighborhood when he saw a young “suspicious” african american male, named Trayvon Martin, in a black hoodie. Zimmerman then called police who told him to wait until they got there, however he was unsatisfied with this and ended up shooting and killing the unarmed Trayvon. Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder and the verdict determined he was acting in self defense, he was acquitted due to Florida's stand your ground law (Reid 2013). After the verdict Trayvon's mom had this to say: "Wrap your mind around no prom for Trayvon, no high-school graduation for Trayvon, no college for Trayvon, no grandkids coming from Trayvon, all because of a law that has prevented the person who shot and killed my son to be held accountable and to pay for his awful crime" (Gambarcorta 2013). Although the case is now over this is still a justice issue because Trayvon's mother's pain and dissatisfaction with the outcome can be felt through her quote, and the dissatisfaction can be felt in the community with all the rioting and protesting.

There are many issues with our correctional system which make change a necessary option for the improvement of offenders, victims, and our justice system altogether. Crime is defined as an offense against the state rather than the victim, the focus is to establish blame rather than solve for the future, the victim is ignored, and an adversarial relationship is created between the victim and offender (Zehr 2001). Incarceration causes a lot of problems for offenders and most of the time makes them more “hardened” hence making them more likely to commit more crimes once they are released back into the community. Prisons impose hardships on inmates to deter them from committing future crime, however only about thirty percent of offenders “learn their lesson” and do not recidivate causing the recidivism rate to be seventy percent. Prisons are the most expensive form of social control available today, corrections expenditures increased from forty dollars in 1982 to two hundred and nine dollars today, a 423 percent increase (Delisi and Conis 2013). At state level prison expenditures make up eighty percent of correctional spending, but is spending all this money to keep offenders locked up really worth it in the end? The offenders, as I mentioned before, do not learn their lesson in most cases and the victim not being able to take part in the justice process leaves them unsatisfied and resentful of the offender and justice system just as Trayvon’s mother was. We are clearly wasting our time and money with this theory of justice.

The recidivism rate is so high because incarceration actually worsens inmates' anti-social attitudes and behaviors and teaches them more about crime from other criminals who help offenders develop new skills (Delisi and Conis 2013). Another problem is that when an offender commits a crime it is treated as crime against the state rather than the victim, when the state punishes an offender they are denying the victim their rights and needs and aren’t allowing the offender to take responsibility (Zehr 2001). If an offender is able to hear from the victim about his or her losses and the harm they have caused, the offender will in most cases realize the impact of his actions and willingly move towards reforming (Johnstone 2001). When the offender realizes what their actions have done to the victim and they are truly committed to reforming, they will apologize and and try to negotiate a solution, which allows the victim to become involved and gain a greater sense of justice and peace. In one particular case a teenager was arrested for a robbery, he was a victim of child abuse, homeless, resented his family and most of his teachers, and felt alienated from the world. He was like many teenagers arrested for robbery in this area, however there is a major difference between the outcomes of this young man and another. Another teenager arrested for robbery was just like the one previously described, a victim of child abuse and angry with the world and alienated from it. This young man was sent to court and sentenced to six months of incarceration where he suffered more violence and acquired a heroin habit. When released he comes out more desperate and alienated than when he was first incarcerated. He “sustains his drug habit for the next 20 years by stealing cars, burgling dozens of houses and pushing drugs to others until he dies in a gutter, a death no one mourns”. The difference between this young man and the first one described is that rather than being incarcerated, he was referred by an arresting officer to a facilitator who convenes a restorative justice conference. Since the young man disliked his family and teachers the facilitator tried to track down people who treated him good. He brought in the young man's sister, uncle, hockey coach, and the victim along with her daughter to participate in the conference. They sat in a circle while the facilitator introduced everyone, the young man/offender named Sam is then asked to explain what happened in his own words. His uncle is then asked what he thinks of Sam’s response, followed by the hockey coach, and then his sister who was too emotional to speak. Then the victim explains how the robbery caused her a lot of trouble and her daughter lets Sam know that her mother is now afraid to go out in fear of being re-victimized. After taking a break the conference resumed and Sam’s sister spoke to him with love and strength, causing the victim to cry out of understanding of Sam’s situation. Once his sister started speaking Sam became emotionally engaged in the conference and apologizes to the victim for what he has done. He says he would like to pay it back but has no job or money, and ensures her that he is not going to stalk her. Feeling relieved the victim says she wants her money back but would feel better if they can talk about what to do to help Sam find a home and job. His sister says he can stay with her for a while, the hockey coach says he has casual work for him to do that would be enough to pay his debt back and leave him a bit extra, and he says if Sam does well he will write him a reference for applications for permanent jobs. As the conference ends Sam apologizes again and the victim hugs him and tearfully wishes him good luck, in the end she got her money back and Sam maintained employment and mostly stayed out of trouble (Braithwaite 2001).

Justice for victims needs to deal effectively with the offenses committed and not provoke or maintain further violence. Justice and peace are two resolutions that go hand in hand and would compliment each other. A successful correctional system would incorporate both concepts into its solutions. Throughout history Acephalous societies, early hebrews, indian hindus, maori tribes, aztec tribes, and other indigenous cultures have relied on peacemaking circles to restore peace among the victim, offender and the community (Weitekamp 2001). This was interesting when stumbled upon during resear