‘A restoring of the definition of justice’
Last year, as a second-year student at Loyola Law School, Victoria Friedman took part in a restorative justice practicum where she acted as mediator among a dozen or so juvenile offenders and their victims.
“I found that a lot of how it turns out depends on the family, the parents, whether they’re receptive to it,” the current third-year law student pointed out.
Then Friedman talked about one case she believes went really well. It involved a local high school student who had vandalized a teacher’s personal property. First the young offender spoke, telling in excruciating detail about the actual day of the vandalism. He revealed what was going through his mind, how he was feeling and why he decided to commit the particular act of vandalism.
Next the victim got the chance to explain how what happened not only affected him but the entire school community. And during the mediation, it came out that while the student always thought the teacher just “had it in” for him, the teacher responded that his motive was much more positive. He simply saw a smart kid who wasn’t living up to his real potential and who badly needed some attention and encouragement.
“I kind of saw that light bulb go off in the student’s head,” Friedman reported. “He agreed to write a letter of apology and do some community service at the school. And I think the teacher could better see what it was like to be an angry teenager who thought that everyone else was in control of his life.
“So even at a high school,” she said, “kids and adults can lose sight of the fact that if the parties can just sit down and have a conversation, lots can be resolved. So a part of restorative justice is really talking about why: ‘What are the reasons behind what you’re doing?’ It’s the idea that the consequences for crimes or bad actions should be restorative and rehabilitative rather than punitive or retributive.”
‘Enormous revolving door’
That’s pretty much why Clinical Professor of Law Scott Wood started the Center for Restorative Justice (CRJ) at Loyola Law School in August of 2009. At first it was just a seminar and whatever kind of pro-bono project he could come up with.
The following February, the center held its first conference on the sentencing of life without parole for juveniles. Also in 2010, former Loyola Law School student body president Seth Weiner came on board as a teaching fellow, and the two decided that CRJ’s focus should be working with juvenile offenders.
This year another fellow was added to head up a pilot juvenile offender-victim mediation with the school’s Center for Conflict Resolution in the Pico-Union neighborhood. Other law students have volunteered to do victims’ advocacy and rights works at local agencies and mediations at places like Homeboy Industries. The center also hosts a speakers’ series.
Wood points out that some 35 years ago the whole emphasis in the California penal and juvenile justice systems was on rehabilitation. In fact, some legislators were convinced that most state prisons could be phased out over time. But then the “drug tsunami” hit places like East and South-Central Los Angeles, with an unprecedented surge in gang-related killings.
The reaction of the public, he says, was, “We have monsters in our inner cities who must be locked up.” The result was “three-strikes” laws that took away the discretionary sentencing powers of judges, while quadrupling the sentences of people addicted to drugs. Over three decades, the number of state prisons doubled, with California’s prison population swelling to 170,000.
And last year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to release 30,000 prisoners because they weren’t being taken care of in a healthy, humane manner. That led to the “realignment” of thousands of convicted criminals serving reduced sentences in county jail — or simply being released — rather than state prison.
“In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of outrage about this 40,000: ‘Oh, my God! All these criminals are being released,’” Wood noted. “What people don’t realize is hundreds of people are being released every day, because people get set terms and they serve their time and then they’re out. And the three-year calculation of recidivism [returning to prison] is about 70 percent.
“So what we have is an enormous revolving door with thousands of people coming out, committing more crime and going back in. If you ran a business that had a 70 percent failure rate with your product, you’d be bankrupt. But ‘we the people’ here have a 70 percent failure rate. So I think restorative justice’s time has come, because we’re at this critical stage now where what we’ve been doing in terms of incarceration doesn’t work.”
Healing vs. punishment
Seth Weiner, postdoctoral teaching fellow at the Center for Restorative Justice, says the archetypal restorative justice process is the victim and offender in a dialogue, or “mediation,” that produces reconciliations for both parties.
“The idea really is the offender to take accountability and try to make things right with the victim,” he explained. “That’s the concept. But this whole movement has got lots of variations of how the thing works so that it will produce healing for people.
“What I like to tell people is that it’s really a restoring of the definition of justice that means balance instead of exclusively punishment. And the avenue in which we achieve balance is through healing everybody who’s affected by a crime. So it starts with victims, but also includes offenders and family members, and the whole community that is responsible for both the victim and the offender.
“We find that victims and offenders have medicine that the other one needs,” he said. “And so a victim-offender dialogue is really a wonderful way when it’s done right to bring those people together and help them heal one another. But it can be done with a victim and offender who aren’t related directly by the same crime. Somebody who has suffered a great loss as a result of a crime can speak on behalf of that experience to somebody who’s committed a crime who’s caused somebody else a great loss. And that sharing by a surrogate can be transformative.”
Wood was nodding as he remarked, “It’s very powerful.” Then the clinical professor of law talked about a program he went through called the Victim Offender Education Group based in San Rafael. VOEG runs weekly meetings for prisoners serving life sentences at San Quentin State Prison, which culminate in bringing survivors of violent crime (often close relatives of murdered victims) in to tell their stories and listen to the life stories of offenders.
In turn, the law professor has given the six-month program twice to former gang members at Homeboy Industries. He recalls one mother who testified about her 20-something son being killed in a drive-by shooting and what that horrific experience did to her and her family.
At the session, a man in the group, who had spent most of his own life in Folsom State Prison for a gang murder, said what kept him going was his mother’s visits and letters. Then he told how she had died just before he was paroled.
“During a break during the group,” Wood recalled, “the mom who lost her son went up to the guy and said, ‘If you need somebody to talk to, come talk to me. I’ll be your mom.’ So that’s the kind of thing that can happen, you know, through deep healing for a victim and an offender.”