Restorative Justice

I don't have time to write, largely because I'm so busy writing all the time. So, I thought I'd resolve the dilemma by posting some of the writing I've been doing. This isn't the greatest piece of writing I've ever done, but for something written on a tight deadline, I'm pretty pleased with it, and it's kind of a nice change to explore solutions instead of problems.

p.s. - any suggestions for headlines?

The .22 caliber bullet that pierced her skull took a lot of things away from Jackie Millar. Shot in the back of the head and left for dead by teenaged car thieves in November 1995, Millar will never recover full use of her body. She’ll never be able to go back to the job she loved, or take any more of the photographs of forests and mountains that decorate her apartment. She can’t walk in high-heeled shoes, or see clearly as her sons Chad and Derek mark their passage to adulthood.

“I should be dead,” she said. “I am legally blind. I am paralyzed on the right side of me. I. talk. slow. My long- and short-term memory is hit-and-miss. All because they wanted my car.”

But Jackie didn’t lose her ability to forgive, and to love. She keeps framed photographs of Craig and Josh -- the teenagers who laid her on the floor and calmly discussed which of them was going to shoot her -- to show to visitors. “I love Craig and Josh,” she said.

“They tried to eliminate me,” she said, and she’ll never forget it. But, “I wanted to get my life back, and I knew that forgiveness was something I’d have to do.”

Working with mediator Bruce Kittle, the former director of the Restorative Justice Project at the UW-Madison Law School, Millar began to communicate with the boys who shot her. “I love restorative justice. It played an important part in the healing process for me,” said Millar. “It is a chance for the perpetrators and the victim to meet side by side, for the perpetrators to ask for forgiveness and for the victim to get to forgive them.”

Millar has visited both of the boys who shot her, and writes them regularly. This process has been instrumental in giving her closure and in forcing her shooters to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done to her and her loved ones. “Craig and Josh won’t forget me. Craig said it best. He said it doesn’t matter if he’s in prison or not, it will plague him until the day he dies.”

The practice of victim-offender dialogues draws on Maori and Native American traditions that focus on bringing victims, perpetrators and their communities together to find ways to repair the harm caused by crime, instead of emphasizing punishment or revenge. According to the web site of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation at the Prison Fellowship Institute, the concept spread from these traditional practices to social service and police agencies. At present, the group’s Web site estimates about 300 programs in the United States operate on these principles.

UW-Madison’s program, the Restorative Justice Project, started in the late 1980’s, when law students and professors searched files at minimum-security prisons for cases where victims and offenders might want to meet, said program director Peter DeWind in a telephone interview. Today, DeWind said, the project works on about 10 cases a year, accepting only victim-initiated requests – partly because they already receive more from requests from victims than they can handle, and partly because he fears pursuing offender-initiated cases risks re-victimizing crime survivors.

The program now works primarily on cases involving severe violence, including homicide. “These cases are often the most valuable, because there’s such emotional trauma and damage to people that there’s often no other way to really relieve,” said DeWind. Giving crime victims a chance to express their emotions --whether anger or forgiveness -- “often eases a lot of those negative emotional effects”

Because most of the offenders remain in prison, it is difficult to gauge the program’s success by traditional markers like recidivism, said DeWind. But, he said, “I just treat it as successful if people are glad that they met.” Follow-up interviews, he said show “virtually without exception, that’s been the case.”

Shelley Justiliano, a victim services program specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said the DOC fully supports the work of the Restorative Justice Project, adding that victim-offender dialogues are “just one tiny aspect” of the restorative justice model the department embraces.

“Lots of things are restorative that we’ve doing forever, like paying restitution,” Justiliano said in a telephone interview. The Department of Corrections also offers victim impact classes, where prisoners spend as many as 16 weeks examining the effect of crime on society – looking at everything from insurance fraud to homicide and sexual assault. Prisoners listen to victims who come in to speak about their experiences, and go through exercises like calculating the cost of their stay in prison or writing their own obituaries as though they were homicide victims. In some prisons, she said, inmates have donated crafts to be sold to benefit victim services programs. The state also tries to give victims the options for input, allowing them to write victim-impact statements for the trial or to appear at parole hearings.

“It’s not a class or a specific program, it’s a way of looking at crime,” Justiliano said. “The model is a triangle, an equal sided triangle. The three sides are occupied by the offender, the victim and the community, and the restorative justice model alludes to the fact that they’re all affected equally.”

Restorative justice is “a lot more meaningful than just fining people or putting people in jail,” said Merry Kay Shernock, a probation officer from Northfield, Vermont who has collaborated with programs in her district since 1997. In a telephone interview, Shernock emphasized the practical value of restorative programs. “Punishment is expensive. If you want to incarcerate people to punish them you have to feed them, you have to give them a place to live. Restorative justice actually makes money, creates value, especially when the offender gives community service.”

The townships Shernock works in offer a number of restorative programs aimed at facilitating offenders’ re-entry into society and finding ways for them to make amends for the harm that they’ve done. The most common, she said, are reparative boards -- citizen volunteers who meet with offenders to draw up contracts for how the offenders can repay the damages they’ve caused to their communities.

“It’s a really ancient idea -- You make a mess, you fix it, you clean it up,” said Shernock. “If you got drunk and drove over Mrs. Johnson’s petunias, the right thing to do is go over and replant them.”

The contracts, which are decided by consensus between the board and the offender, seek to include the needs of as much of the community as possible. In one case, Shernock recalled, “A man got terribly drunk and plowed into a pedestrian bridge and destroyed it.” Before the accident, elderly people stood on the bridge to throw crumbs to ducks, and one consequence of the accident was that the ducks went hungry. As a result, said Shernock, “Part of his contract was that he had to feed the ducks until the bridge was rebuilt.” After all, she said, “One of the biggest impacts of his offense was on those poor ducks.”

In the end, added Shernock, the ducks got fed, and the offender later told her that having to get up in the cold every morning “really made him think about things.”

And that, she said, is the best she can hope for. “We don’t ask, ‘Does this reduce the crime rate?’ The question we ask is ‘Was the victim compensated, were amends made to the victim?’ That’s what we care about -- that wrongs were righted, to the extent possible.”

The restorative justice model can also help societies recover from human rights abuses or mediate international conflict, said Kyle Leighton of the Restorative Justice Initiative at Marquette University. Bodies like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where offenders publicly took responsibility for crimes committed under the apartheid system and victims were given an opportunity to tell their stories, move beyond a dialogue between offenders and the state, he said. “I think it can be really healing for a society, for all aspects of a community, to take part in that conversation.”

In honor of restorative justice week, which begins Nov. 12, Marquette University will host a sold-out international conference on the 13th, titled “Healing after Political Violence,” bringing together people from around the world to share their experiences with restorative processes. Separate events, with the theme of ‘creative partnerships, collaborative action,” will be held throughout the week at prisons across the state.