by Scott Holmes
Restorative justice” is a movement to integrate communities into the criminal justice system and facilitate moments of reconciliation between victims and offenders within the system. I believe communities can play a larger role before, during and after the criminal justice system runs its course. We should be working toward ways to provided assistance to communities, victims, offenders, and their families in connection with violence, crime and addiction.
A. Victim Services
Victims of crime, and their families, need support and assistance. They need emotional and psychological support and counseling for both survivors of crime and “secondary survivors” who provide emotional support to survivors and suffer many of the same feelings of fear, depression, lack of control, shame, and frustration. These people need legal advice and guidance to navigate the labyrinth of the criminal justice system. They also need a safe, measured, and clear process to articulate their own voice within the criminal justice system. Some may need a safe way to interact with the offender and/or the family of the offender to find healing in some kind of reconciliation.
B. Offender Services
Offenders, Defendants, and their families, need support and assistant. Offenders often need counseling and support to handle incarceration and all of the tragic circumstances which led to their incarceration. Families of offenders need support to handle the loss of their family member, and struggle with the conflicting emotions of loving the offender and hating the crime. They need legal advice and guidance to navigate the labyrinth of the criminal justice system. They need a safe, measured, and clear process to articulate their own voice in the criminal justice system. They may also seek a safe way to interact with the victim, or family of the victim, to find some healing form of reconciliation. Methods of documentary video making, or other media and technology may provide great assistance in create a form of safe and healing interaction leading toward reconciliation.
Offenders often have special needs involving medical treatment for addiction, psychological counseling for past trauma, vocational training for viable employment, and training in anger management and non-violent resolution of conflicts. Offenders often need a broader understanding of the legal process than their attorneys are able (or willing) to provide, and could benefit from an understanding of mandatory minimum sentences in federal court – to understand the consequences of additional offenses. If rehabilitation is a true goal of the criminal justice system, then these special needs should be recognized and met.
Offenders also need care and support when they complete their sentence and re-enter their communities. The same old habits, associates, and problems that contributed to the offender’s commission of a crime are often waiting for the offender upon their release. Offenders need help reintegrating into their community in a healthy and sustainable manner.
C. Community Services
Communities need help organizing around strategies that facilitate: (1) prevention of crime by addressing the underlying social, economic, and medical causes of crime, (2) greater participation in the criminal justice process by articulating to courts, victims, and offenders the harm caused by the crime and the appropriate resolution of the case from a community point of view, and (3) the reintegration of offenders back into the community once they have completed their sentence.
Communities could be more empowered to address the issues of race and poverty which significantly contribute to a great deal of crime. Community committees could have a role in local agencies and organizations dealing with mental health treatment, housing, education, law enforcement practices, racial relations, development of a local economy. A holistic treatment for crime and violence in communities must consider how the health of the community relies on the interdependency and interaction of these various aspects of our community. For example, decisions and policies in one area, like low-income housing, are often made without consideration of how those polices might affect other areas, like education services, law enforcement practices, or the local economy. Communities can be organized and trained to understand and require the mindful coordination of these parts of the community body, to promote the overall health the community and reduce violence, crime and addiction within communities.
Above and beyond the traditional “community watch” programs, there are particular programs and direct actions that communities can conduct that would help prevent crime.
Communities could provide a space for peaceful protection and escape from situations of violence. There needs to be a place for people in low income communities to seek sanctuary from street violence. This place needs to be safe, clean, and well protected. Intended victims of street violence and unwilling recruits to acts of reprisal know when violence is imminent. There is a moment right before violence happens that these people could disengage, but there is no acceptable safe place to go during that critical time leading up to the act of reprisal. These acts of reprisal are time critical because it is important to restore “respect” soon after it is lost so that people make the connection between the act of disrespect and the reprisal. Crisis Centers serve a similar purpose for victims of domestic violence. More women would have certainly died from domestic violence without such safe places to go when violence was imminent. This model can be expanded to sanctuaries from street violence, community centers where youth can take a time out from the street during critical times. There should be a place where those who get caught up in the cycle of street violence can go to be safe for a while, to let tempers cool. Social workers trained in nonviolence could run these sanctuaries, and even intervene or mediate these conflicts and undermine the street economy of fear. Such a sanctuary would save lives and reduce violent crime.
(b) Take Back the Streets
Community campaigns to take back the streets could involve collective action to march, demonstrate, and coordinate vigils in public “staging areas” where drugs are sold and gangs congregate. Led by residents trained in nonviolent resistance, these campaigns to take back the street could confront known drug dealers, challenge gang signs and symbols with nonviolent signs and symbols, and create a common community focus. These organizing efforts could provide a positive place for community youth to find support, encouragement, and fellowship while they help heal the community – thereby offering a powerful alternative to gang activity.
(c) Listening Projects
Residents from the deeply divided parts of our community need the opportunity to meet and learn about each other. Affluent members of a community middle class need to go to the low income communities, and have community listening session where they hear about the problems that face low income residents. Likewise, low income residents need to go to affluent neighborhoods and hear about the fears and concerns of the affluent members of the community. Careful and respectful listening is the first step toward an honest and open dialogue. Community leaders should also engage in a similar listening campaign and go to schools, churches, and neighborhoods and list carefully and respectfully to the concerns and fears of violence facing the residents. I strongly suspect that the youth in our schools can vividly and systematically describe the problems they face or offer some immediate and concrete ideas for solutions. Cross community service projects could be developed where more affluent residents offer their time and resources to residents of low income communities to mentor youth, and provide child care or transportation for working mothers and grandmothers. Mainstream business leaders can create cross cultural opportunities for work, apprenticeships, and other kinds of mentoring work opportunities for youth in low income communities. These listening projects should be open to exploring deep differences of class and race and seek reconciliation in the context of our history of racial and economic segregation.
(d) Zones of Disarmament
Communities could designate certain areas, homes, business, and churches, as Zones of Peace – where no weapons or addictive substances are allowed. People in these areas would take responsibility for posting signs prohibiting such weapons or substances, and declaring these areas “Peace Zones.” Communities could use trespass laws to enforce these prohibitions. Communities could coordinate a disarmament program with local law enforcement officers to allow for the voluntary disposal or purchasing of weapons off the street.
There are a wide variety of other ways communities could become more involved with preventing crime. These might include (1) promoting local businesses and programs that hire, mentor, and monitor troubled youth, (2) developing meaningful and accessible medical treatment for addiction and depression within low income communities, (3) training and coordinating with law enforcement officers to promote nonviolent interactions and non-adversarial relationships between police and members of the low income community, (4) coordinating housing for offenders who re-enter communities in a way the provides necessary vocational training, medical counseling, and addiction treatment to help these persons from committing new crimes.
Communities can and should have a greater role in the criminal justice process. Local neighborhood committees on crime could meet with victims and their families, and offenders and their families, and assess how the crime has affected their community. The community crime committee could articulate its own view of the crime to the Courts at sentencing with the hope that the Court could craft a sentence that takes the community into account. Community participation in the actual criminal justice system itself would lessen the adversarial nature of the system, and shift the emphasis from retribution to reconciliation and rehabilitation for the offender, the victim, and the community.
(3) Rehabilitation and Reintegration
The criminal justice system has often been described as a “revolving door,” or a cycle of crime perpetuating crime. One way to help break the cycle is to help offenders get the treatment and training necessary to have stable mental health and secure a stable living wage once they are released from their sentence. Given these tools, an offender re-entering a community also needs the care and support of that community in order to avoid the problems, practices, and habits which led to criminal behavior in the first place. Community mentors and liaisons could help offenders re-entering the community to find a healthy place in the community, and provide assurance to the community that there is less risk of additional crime from that former offender.