The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Restorative justice is an emerging practice being used in corrections systems across the country; it is offering a new option for both offenders and victims of crime. It might be just what is needed to reform America’s justice system
By Melanie Taussig
What is getting justice about? It is a fundamental question that sometimes has complex and varying answers. It is also a question that Dr. Shannon Sliva has been researching for many years. Dr. Sliva, an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver has devoted her career to exploring justice, specifically restorative justice. She recalls first learning about restorative justice as a college student and how the concept resonated with her; she fundamentally identified with the framework that creates a window for human engagement and connection to take place. Dr. Sliva went on to earn her Doctorate in Social Work and is now a researcher and educator at the forefront of the long-standing yet innovative practice of restorative justice.
Hardly a new idea, the origins of restorative justice date back to many indigenous populations living in pre-colonized societies. Recently, however, restorative justice has been the topic of much discussion and has received its share of media coverage. The idea behind restorative justice is a response to repair harm that took place. It usually occurs as a face-to-face contact between the person who caused the harm and the person who was on the receiving end of that wrongdoing. Sitting at her office desk at the University of Denver, Dr. Sliva explains that restorative justice is a philosophical view, a way in which people approach, consider, and address wrongdoing and implicit harm.
In her research, Dr. Sliva focuses on incarcerated populations and specifically, the use of victim offender dialogue as a practice to respond to the deep harm caused by violent crime. Victim offender dialogues are facilitated processes, which bring crime victims together with perpetrators. This may seem like an outlandish idea to some. Dr. Sliva herself admits the concept of restorative justice might seem “surprising,” but as more studies have been conducted, researchers who study restorative justice are learning about positive outcomes associated with the practice.
Research has shown that restorative justice has the potential to bring about unexpected and profound results. However, it is not a resolution for all. Restorative justice is used only amongst select cases in which all parties wish to meet and where a team of trained professionals have carefully considered the implications and impending circumstances. While restorative justice is more frequently being regarded as an option, it is still a developing practice in the U.S. criminal legal system. Dr. Sliva is working to educate people about the benefits of this complex and sometimes hard to comprehend concept, as she did when she presented a TED talk on the topic last summer.
A complex theory where outcomes are never identical
When a person hurts another individual, natural human instinct is often for the person on the receiving end of the hurt, generally referred to as the victim, to possess a deep desire for the person who caused the harm (the offender) to understand the impact that resulted from those actions. Restorative justice provides an opportunity to do just that by bringing the victim and the offender together, along with a trained facilitator, who conducts a meeting between the two parties.
Restorative justice has been used to bring individuals who have committed murder together with the victim’s family and even united people who themselves have been targets with the individual who perpetrated the crime against them. There is a long sequence of steps to putting restorative justice into motion. The process is typically initiated at the victim’s request and is voluntary for both the victim and offender. Dr. Sliva explains this aspect to be crucial as forced participation could lead to a contrived response, which may amount to an undesirable outcome. In addition to willingness, readiness is also an important component of the process. The victim and offender each engage in lengthy evaluations by facilitators to determine their emotional capacities to engage. If an individual does not possess the emotional or cognitive capability to participate in meaningful dialogue, it could lead to less than optimal results.
The idea of sitting across the table from someone who tried to inflict harm or who took something of great value from you may seem inexplicable to many. Dr. Sliva explains that while not everyone may understand or identify with the concept, restorative justice has the potential to commence a healing process and she has observed positive results in her research. “I’ve seen neutral outcomes but I have never seen a negative outcome,” says Dr. Sliva. In her work, she has observed a few central needs of victims: to get their questions answered, to get face-to-face accountability, to assess the person’s remorse, and to make some sense of the terrible loss they have endured. This is one reason restorative justice can have positive effects. Simply put, it provides a possibility toward healing that a legal sentence often cannot satisfy. Dr. Sliva refers to restorative justice as an “organic process,” a conversation that can take on a life of its own, steered by authentic dialogue between two invested human beings (victim & offender) while in the presence of a trained facilitator.
While restorative justice is often perceived as an alternative to punishment, it may also be a supplement to an already instated sentence. The practice does not suggest that those who have caused harm by committing horrendous crimes not be held accountable for their actions. In fact when utilized, restorative justice holds an individual to the highest level of accountability as it involves the perpetrator acknowledging his or her role in the wrongdoing. As a practitioner specializing in the practice Dr. Sliva says, “we don’t ever want to imply that any kind of harm that is caused can actually be made right. Some harms that people have sustained can’t actually be made right [for example], a person can’t be brought back.” Dr. Sliva makes clear that the notion that guides restorative justice is “repairing the harm as much as possible.”
Crime & Punishment in America
It is a sobering fact; the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Those who are convicted of crimes in the U.S. enter into an adversarial criminal justice system, which operates under punitive principles. The U.S. comprises roughly 5% of the world’s population yet accounts for over 20% of the world’s prison population. In her research, Dr. Sliva has found that it is not uncommon for offenders to feel contrition for their wrongdoing. “I think it would surprise people,” says Dr. Sliva, “that most people who have caused harm to other people through crime want some kind of opportunity to make amends for that. Whether it’s specifically being able to make amends to the certain person or if it is broadly wanting to give back to the community. People [offenders] often want to make up for, to the extent that they can, the negative impacts that they had on their community by creating positive ones.”
When two individuals meet face-to-face as part of the restorative justice practice, it provides an opportunity for the responsible party to take personal accountability as well as offer penitence to the victim. Dr. Sliva has found there to be benefits associated with an offender expressing remorse. Restorative justice can also be a pathway toward purpose. Dr. Sliva indicates that when an incarcerated person is involved in a restorative process, that individual may wind up dedicating themselves to a “life of service” and giving back to society, even if it is only in the limited ways that are possible from inside the walls of prison. This is an important consideration, as an inmate who takes steps toward repairing harm will likely fare better in society once released. Indeed, research has pointed to lower rates of recidivism for those who have participated in restorative justice as well as a lower likelihood of reoffending. A reduction in the rate of persons returning to jail/prison is positive both for societal reintegration and for financial reasons, as lower incarceration (and re-incarceration) rates will ultimately save taxpayer dollars.
Mental health implications
Trauma is a common experience for victims following a crime. Restorative justice can be an effective way for some to address that trauma. Dr. Sliva explains, “There is a trauma experience that the victim has undergone. Following a trauma people often can experience a shift in safety and how they feel about the world. One of the most central losses that we see victims sustain is the sense that they are safe or that they could have predicted what would happen to themselves or to their loved one.” This type of thinking along with deeply ingrained feelings of uncertainty about the world can be a gateway to incessant and constant ruminations. Victims may be obsessively asking themselves questions such as ‘how could I have stopped it [the crime]?’ or ‘why did this person do this to me [or my family]’? Such fixations can become a grave disruption to contend with day after day and, these obsessive thoughts can interminably re-traumatize the victim.
Dr. Sliva recalls two separate situations, both when she was working with mothers. Both had lost sons to violence and were fraught with immense emotional trauma. Dr. Sliva remembers that the first of the two mothers was fixated on imagining how her son was killed. Meeting with the man who murdered her son provided some answers and she reported that she was able to stop repeatedly envisioning what she believed had occurred. The second mother’s memories of her son were overshadowed by memories of his death. A dialogue with the offender provided relief from the obsessive thoughts. She reported that she was ultimately able to focus on memories associated with her son’s life rather than his death.
These are two examples of victims trapped on a hamster wheel of emotional turmoil; restorative justice helped to provide a sense of reprieve. Outcomes from meetings between offenders and victims are always unknown and unique. Victims may create their own vision of the offender and oftentimes believe the worst of that person until an in-person meeting. “They [the victim] may not forgive and the offender may not be a wonderful person [in the victim’s eyes],” says Dr. Sliva, “but they don’t turn out to be the person who had essentially become like a monster in their [the victim’s] mind.”
Restorative justice also has benefits for offenders. In no way does restorative justice dispute the terrible acts an offender has been involved in; in fact the practice actually promotes accountability for those actions. Participation in restorative justice has been shown to help garner empathy in offenders. Offenders frequently come from backgrounds where they have been subjected to a great deal of trauma themselves. This can impact brain development. Dr. Sliva references research that has shown, contrary to what was once believed, the brain has the capacity to continue developing into adulthood. It is experiences like restorative justice, which requires human engagement, direct connection, and empathy building that can positively influence the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions. Dr. Dan Reisel, a researcher who studies the behavior of prison inmates and the brain’s capacity to continue developing into adulthood discusses his findings in a compelling TED Talk entitled, The neuroscience of restorative justice.
A philosophical view founded with community & authentic connection in mind
Restorative justice has deep-seeded roots dating back to pre-urbanization amongst indigenous and tribal communities. Long before it was given a name, the concept was used in communities for the betterment of the broader population. There were entire societies that gave credence to the idea of repairing harm; thus restorative justice became a way of relating to others, the concept permeating entire communities during archaic eras. According to Dr. Sliva, communal societies perceive that human interactions extend far beyond the victim and offender; repair is about healing the entire community. Dr. Sliva explains this communal worldview as a trope of sorts, “for my healing to be complete means for all of our healing to be complete”
Dr. Sliva references, One Day After Peace, a documentary she has shown to her students. This film features an extraordinary example of restorative justice from the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission: An individual who murdered the son of a family would now bring this family food each month. In this case, the offender is acting in the role of provider, a role the son would have fulfilled had he not been killed. Repairing the harm in this instance is concurrently satisfying a purpose. While this might be a difficult concept for some to grasp, the motivating factor for such actions are founded in the idea of positive contribution. “Restorative justice can create a different pathway for human connection,” says Dr. Sliva. “Most victims and offenders who come to the table are looking to connect and to feel empathy and sympathy toward the person who has caused them harm.”
Restorative justice: Not without flaws yet practical and worth considering
As with any complex theory, restorative justice has been a subject that has been at the forefront of ongoing debate. During our conversation, Dr. Sliva talks about how the ubiquity of technology is presenting new questions and innovative considerations about the use of restorative justice online. Dr. Sliva acknowledges that with the rise of the Internet, authentic human connection is becoming scarcer. “It becomes increasingly difficult to create a space where that [connection] can authentically occur,” she says. While there may be aspects of restorative justice that could be useful to address issues such as online bullying and trolling, Dr. Sliva indicates there to be a complexity that is entrenched in online communication. Attempting to replicate authentic interactions on the Internet has challenges. Because much of the misconduct that takes place online is anonymous, people can engage in wrongdoing with complete impunity, which is in contradistinction to accountability, one of the central tenets of restorative justice.
Dr. Sliva is not blindly idyllic in her affinity for restorative justice; she is well aware it “is not a perfect system” and recognizes that revenge can sometimes be a very strong emotion in the face of wrongdoing. “There is a very natural human impulse toward being punitive,” attests Dr. Sliva. Nevertheless, she hopes people will consider restorative justice as another option. As we wind down our extremely in-depth and thought-provoking conversation, Dr. Sliva circles back to the sobering statistic about excessive prison rates in the U.S. “We’re using incarceration for things that we probably don’t have to be using it for,” she says. It is this belief that in part drives Dr. Sliva’s crusade of employing restorative justice as way to potentially reform the justice system. Dr. Sliva marvels at the opportunity restorative justice presents for people to connect and relate to one another on a broader scale. “The importance of sitting down and talking. Maybe that’s just a tiny piece but it’s part of being the change and creating the [kind of] community we want to be a part of,” says a smiling Dr. Sliva. “When we create spaces for people to come together as humans, far more is possible. When we connect, we are capable of so much more than we think.”
Dr. Shannon Sliva is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Denver. To view her TED talk about restorative justice, click here.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Sliva.
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