I thought I might just give you a few reflections today, to try to relate a few of my experiences as an agent in the traditional criminal justice system for over 30 years with the experience I had with the restorative justice model more recently.

But, first, permit me to read:

The Law is a rational entity represented by a collection of individuals endlessly replaced, whose good intentions and whose memories are, like themselves, itinerant. The [courts and the police ] in their diverse functions can do nothing to prevent crime, but they are constituted only to deal with cases as they arise.

These words, published in the 1840’s in France, resonate with my experience of the traditional criminal justice system, even today. The author of these words, the novelist Balzac, goes on to bemoan the lack of legislative support for a more robust preventive role for the police and, today, despite some advances in community policing, the situation today often remains unchanged.

The restorative justice model wrestles with the prevention of crime, not so much in the sociological sense but by focusing on the questions:

  1. Who has been hurt?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. Whose obligations are these?
  4. Who has a stake in this situation?
  5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

– Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

I think the intent of restorative justice is to challenge the offenders to question themselves by asking: “what did I do to rupture the relationship between me and those close to me, the victim of my crime or the community at large, and how can I repair the damage?” Making amends, especially when transformed by a consciousness of the larger community, can be a potent force to allow offenders to change society for the better. Let me give a concrete example from the restorative chapter of my life:

An offender – a professional in the community convicted of DUI – elected to design his own community service outreach program, if you will. He took it upon himself to relate his experience of driving drunk, being arrested, and why he will not drive drunk again, to colleagues and associates he met in the normal course of life. He kept notes on those encounters. Some people did not want to listen; they drive drunk themselves. Others listened reluctantly. I have to believe he planted a few seeds that brought new life.

This “making amends / changing consciousness” dynamic, I believe, can occur, irrespective of the level of education or traditional “insight” (usually defined as being able to be introspective and able to articulate the results of that introspection).

I remember another offender who appeared before our Reparative Panel. He had shoplifted an odd assortment of items from a supermarket. The items had a minimal cost. The offender was at fairly loose ends himself. He had housing, but not very stable. He had access to funds, but lived on the fringes of society. As a community service assignment, he helped out at the Drop-In Center, dealing with individuals even less fortunate than himself. When he was asked about the community service assignment at the panel meeting, I sensed he got a bit choked up and said, somewhat hesitantly, that he realized that other folks had it even tougher than he had it.

Some might say that appearing before a citizens’ panel, answering questions and doing community service is not punishment enough. Perhaps I am misapplying Saul Alinsky’s Rule: “The threat is more terrifying that the thing itself.” But, from my more traditional days, I recall the case of Carmen, a 16 yr. old, who stole money from his neighbor’s dresser – the neighbor was blind. He then bought a moped with the money. The police caught up with him, sold the moped back to the owner and returned the money to the victim (probably against the rules, but certainly restorative, in a way!). In any event, I saw Carmen at the county jail. He was very candid at interview. He said, “When the judge told me to go back into the bullpen, that I was going to jail, I cried. But then I got here and found it wasn’t so bad; all my friends are here.”

I think the Carmen story stands for two principles: Our jail and prison system, in large part, is dysfunctional. We take individuals who have problems socializing in society and gather them together in facilities where they can reinforce each others’ antisocial behavior. It also reminds of a remark made by a Jail Warden I worked for: “How can you rehabilitate someone who has never been habilitated in the first place?”

it is at that point closest in time to the offense that an intervention — or if you prefer a more traditional word, punishment, should occur to be most effective.

— Robert Oeser

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up to receive our posts in your email.

* indicates required

Vermont Just Justice is an all-volunteer organization. Help us continue to support Vermont’s incarcerated people and change our state’s criminal legal system.