Yesterday, Psychologists for Social Responsibility
(PsySR) faxed this letter with recommendations for reducing violence to
Joe Biden's office. The letter, which I helped draft, is also
available on the PsySR website as a two-page PDF.
January 11, 2013
Vice-President Joe Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20501
Fax #: 202-452-2461
In the midst of great sadness over the Newtown shootings, and the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in our country, we are writing to you to (1) express support for the Task Force on Gun Violence and (2) to make three specific recommendations we hope the Task Force will consider as it searches for strategies to keep our citizens safer. These recommendations are based on our understanding of the most successful practices for addressing the complex issues involved.
we want to express our support for the specific steps you are taking to
address this serious issue in the wake of the collective grief and
desire to increase our collective safety as a nation. Psychologists for
Social Responsibility (PsySR) is a non-profit with a mission of building
cultures of peace with justice. Like you and your Task Force, our
organization's mission includes a desire for safer communities and
schools in which children thrive and adults are able to use their
resources to teach, support, and be effective mentors for our nation's
We see school
attacks such as Newtown in the context of a broader culture that
endorses force and violence as the way of resolving disputes, including
war, urban violence and a harsh, punitive criminal justice system. As
mental health professionals, we know that effective psychological
treatment can help troubled individuals find safer ways to express
themselves, and we unequivocally support early identification of mental
health concerns and improved access to services for those who need them.
However, the data show that there is no single cause of violence and,
as a group, those with mental illness are no more prone to violence than
those without such a diagnosis. Similarly, the empirical data have so
far failed to establish a clear and consistent link between media
consumption and violence. It is our position that violence is a societal
problem, not a mental health or media problem, and we urge the Task
Force to respond accordingly and not focus exclusively on a particular
subgroup of Americans. We also believe that easy access to guns,
especially assault weapons, are part of the culture of violence and
believe that any national effort to reduce violence must somehow address
the easy access to such weapons.
Like you and your Task Force, we understand that the origins of violence are complex and multi-faceted and that the reduction of violence will require a long-term commitment. As an international organization of psychologists and social scientists dedicated to the implementation of effective strategies for promoting peace and justice, we would like to offer our support by bringing the Task Force's attention to three areas that have shown significant reductions in violence in communities where they have been implemented.
Based on these significant findings, we would like to recommend that your Task Force consider:
1. Creating an initiative to integrate Restorative Justice practices into public schools. This recommendation is based on the significant decreases in bullying, disciplinary actions, police and juvenile justice involvement by youth in school districts that have adopted school-wide restorative approaches (see, for example, this 2010 NESTA report on radically efficient social interventions: http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/reports/assets/features/radical_efficiency). These and other data clearly show that communities that learn to resolve conflict restoratively through the cultivation of dialogical and mutually responsible relationships experience a reduced number of violent acts. The manner in which justice is dispensed in a culture sets the tone and expectation for how differences and violations are to be dealt with. Strengthening restorative justice responses to violence sends a clear message that we understand the price a culture and its communities pay when violence occurs and community members don't have the opportunity to engage in reparative behaviors that re-establish human bonds.
2. Integrating restorative principles and practices into the youth justice systems. We believe that prevention is the treatment of choice for the violence enveloping our nation (for empirical evidence, see http://www.preventviolence.info/evidence_base.aspx#results). At the same time, we also recognize that not all violence is preventable. When violence does occur, our communities and justice systems need to be prepared to respond restoratively, focusing on healing and the repair of harm rather than only on punishing those who have perpetrated violence. As Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie noted in his comparative studies of penal systems, the huge disparity in rates of imprisonment among countries cannot be explained by the relative amount of crime and must be attributed, at least in part, to the cultural willingness to inflict suffering. Given its incarceration rates, the United States has clearly demonstrated its willingness to inflict such suffering, but recidivism rates remain unacceptably high and data clearly show that youth incarceration is a primary risk factor for future violence and other criminal behaviors. In short, incarceration of youth for most crimes is not only not an effective strategy for preventing violence or other criminal behavior, it may actually increase the probability of such violence taking place. As a result, many countries, most notably New Zealand, have integrated restorative principles and practices into their youth justice systems and moved away from incarceration as the dominant response. Despite their reputation in some circles as "soft on crime", restorative practices, such as victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, and Restorative Circles have been shown to lower recidivism rates and future violence, at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. We urge the task force to examine these data and move toward integrating restorative practices into our youth justice systems.
3. Implementing a Ban on Assault Weapons whose primary purpose is to kill a large number of people in a rapid way. This recommendation is based on the significant decreases in fatal acts of violence in countries (e.g., Japan) that have increased restrictions on such weapons. These statistics clearly show that for both impulsive and premeditated acts of violence, a lack of access to means of mass-killing reduces the number of violent acts.