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The U.S. (in)Justice System Doesn't Work. The Alternative Just Might

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Talking is involved, so is listening. Lots of listening. But it's a decidedly different type of talk than people usually engage in, and it's not just talk.

The restorative process is designed to lead to voluntary (and they really are voluntary!) acts offered to repair or restore the relationship. The two words are not synonymous. Reparative acts have to do with compensation -- paying for a broken window is a reparative act -- while restorative acts are those whose value is largely symbolic, a heart-felt apology may qualify, or a basket of vegetables from one's garden, or an invitation to dinner. It's certainly not surprising that people prefer to have both, but it turns out, Barter explains, that if they can only have one, there is a strong preference for acts that are restorative.

And yet, restorative processes aren't, at the heart of it, about apologies or even about restorative acts more generally. They're about mutual understanding and connection. This is especially salient in racialized conflict. Such conflicts are often characterized by (legitimate) accusations of racial bias/prejudice, which, in turn, frequently trigger denial and defensiveness. As the conflict typically unfolds, no one feels heard or understood. At the end, the parties are usually more angry, hurt, and disconnected than ever.

Restorative processes offer an alternative, not just for criminal offenses (for which they are often used in addition to rather than instead of criminal trials) but for any conflict, great or small. Unlike retributive justice systems, restorative systems work because the people involved want to be there and are invested in the process, which allows the participants to not just understand each other but experience each other's humanity. That's why restorative acts are offered. That's why they're experienced as restorative.

Skeptical? I certainly was, and I wanted hard data, not personal testimonials. What I found was one empirical study after another that demonstrated the effectiveness of restorative systems. Indeed, a recent review of the research on restorative justice across multiple continents showed that restorative systems reduce recidivism in both violent and property crime in comparison to traditional justice systems and provide a variety of benefits to the "victims", including improved mental health and greater satisfaction with the justice process (Sherman & Strang, 2007).

Teachers learning RC, Rondonia, Brazil, 2007 by Dominic Barter

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Such a profound process should be difficult to facilitate. It isn't. The power of RC rests in the process, and it is the structure of the process that creates change, not the facilitator, whose job is merely to create and hold the space for the process to unfold.

Barter says the facilitators he enjoys observing most are those under the age of 10. Why not? In Dominic Barter's world, schoolchildren spontaneously break out into a restorative circle during recess. It seems downright inconceivable at first, but after a few days with Barter, the message sinks in: Facilitating a circle is child's play. Anyone can do it.

Isn't it time we start?

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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