RJ BEHIND THE WIRE
It is often argued that punishment is the appropriate manner in which to address crime. However, retributive justice, in which an impersonal state hands down punishment with little to no consideration for actual victims, and hardly any for the offenders, is not the only form of justice. We contend that true justice, restorative justice, which has been the practice of tribal communities and civilizations for many millennia prior to our modern day system, holds significant value as a rehabilitative tool. The central concern of restorative justice is not retribution or punishment, but the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, and the restoration of broken relationships. This sort of justice serves to restore the victim and rehabilitate the offender, who should be given the opportunity to reintegrate himself into the community. In this spirit, we propose an offender program be implemented at Green Rock Correctional Center, encompassing direct encounters between victim impact panels and incarcerated offenders, dialogue between stakeholders, and service projects by offenders to the communities that have been harmed. Only then can the claim be made that justice, restorative justice, is being served, and genuine efforts are being made to work for healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is both a theory and practice that emphasizes repairing the harms caused, and often revealed, by criminal behavior. By involving those who have a stake in a specific crime, RJ seeks to heal the harms while identifying the needs and obligations of those involved in an effort to put things right.
Crime is defined as an offense against the state. It is primarily focused on the offender, with the guiding questions being: What laws have been broken?, Who did it?, and What do they deserve?. Consequently, the actual victims often feel ignored, even abused by the entire modern criminal justice process. In contrast, justice that is restorative is concerned primarily with the victim. The guiding questions being: Who has been hurt?, What are their needs?, and Whose obligations are these?. RJ is a paradigm shift in the understanding of crime as the breaking of a law against the faceless state to a realization that crime is a wrong, injury, or violation against a person and community. The primary stakeholders in a given crime are the victim, the offender and the community, ideally all of whom should be given the opportunity to take part in the restorative process in order to heal and reconcile the damage caused.
As it stands the criminal justice system inadvertently discourages offenders from acknowledging their responsibilities while encouraging offenders towards a pattern of selfish behavior. A RJ system seeks to aid offenders in comprehending the consequences of their actions including acceptance of personal responsibility and learning to empathize with victims. Such accountability has proven to be better for the victims, community, and offenders.
RJ promotes reconciliation over retribution. The infliction of a “just dessert” of pain on offenders will not heal the harms of crime. True justice requires more. Repair, reconciliation, rehabilitation and the rebuilding of relationships requires a search for solutions. Offenders should be allowed and obliged to make the world a better place as part of their rehabilitation. Restorative Justice enables this process to begin.
STATEMENT OF NEED:
92% of offenders currently incarcerated in Virginia’s Department of Corrections (VADOC) will be released back into the neighborhoods of the Commonwealth. Over 65% of those released will return to prison within three years. Consequently, it stands to reason that the rehabilitative efforts within the VADOC have largely been ineffective. We submit that this is because crime is at its core a moral issue. Moreover, offenders do not generally identify, nor are they given the opportunity to identify, with their victims. We believe a victim oriented offender rehabilitation program based on RJ principles will offer a long overdue and desperately needed compliment to existing programming.
The daily operation of the VADOC does not foster victim offender reconciliation. Indeed, in this environment, thought, empathy, and concern for victims abate as offenders suffer the daily rigors of prison, often leaving offenders feeling victimized themselves. It is our sincerest belief that virtually no offender in the VADOC will truly identify and empathize with their victims until given a forum to do so.
Our status as individuals incarcerated in the Commonwealth affords us a unique perspective as to the necessity of an RJ program. To our knowledge no such programs are currently operating within the VADOC. Through this outline we are requesting your assistance in developing a curriculum and framework that incorporates victim impact panels, surrogate victim offender conferencing, and community service projects conducive to a correctional setting. In addition, future expansion to direct victim offender conferencing, circle processes to address institutional offender discipline, and many other facets of RJ can be developed to further enhance the program footprint.
Restorative Justice has been the dominant form of justice throughout most of human existence. It emerged from prehistoric times around the globe and from the earliest civilizations. Elements of RJ can be found in the code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2060 BCE) from Sumer; the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 BCE) from Babylon; both Old and New Testaments of the Bible; the Brehan laws from Ireland; and many others. From the indigenous Maori of New Zealand to the First Nation Peoples of Canada, RJ has been the natural form of justice.
With the concepts of weregild (denoting restitution) and frith (the harmony that can result from just atonement and communal balance), the original tribes of Northwestern Europe were likewise immersed in RJ. The waning of this type of justice can be loosely traced back to the Norman conquest of England in the year 1066. Punitive punishment began to take precedence over settlements and the restorative form of justice was replaced by a form of justice more concerned with retribution. As the focus of justice became increasingly characterized by retribution, the concepts of weregild and communal frith were replaced by those of corporal and capital punishment as well as a system that included fines, confiscations, and forfeitures to the King. All crime in the kingdom became a crime against the King. As nation-states developed, governments took the place of Kings in this capacity, thus rendering the victims very much marginalized.
The history of Western Civilization’s current retributive criminal justice and penal system is not so easily simplified. It developed from a cobbling of Roman and Cannon Law and gained further influence from the Reformation, Enlightenment, French Revolution, and European traditions in general. In conjunction with a greater consolidation of power, the state succeeded in monopolizing the entire judicial process. Crime, as defined by the state, required the administration of pain for retribution and prison became the primary instrument for applying such punitive sanctions.
RJ as a modern movement emerged in the 1970’s in Elmira, Ontario and Elkhart, Indiana, as a response to a growing crime problem. It has since spread across North America and throughout a number of countries in Europe. RJ played a prominent role in post-Apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as becoming the default form of justice for New Zealand’s juvenile system, based on the native Maori tradition of “Utu” (restoring balance). Likewise, RJ has been incorporated in Minnesota’s Department of Corrections for nearly two decades. Further restorative inroads have been made in the states of Wisconsin, Washington, and Alabama prison systems including the operation of cognitive communities and Evidence Based Practice Honor Dorms. It is apparent that RJ as a state, national, global, and social movement is growing rapidly precisely because it is a common sense process that is proven effective.
The core curriculum outline for the Green Rock Correctional Center (GROC) Restorative Justice Program is currently in a fluid state. As we continue to research and develop ideas as well as enlist support and resources, a more focused program will come into frame. We do believe that six critical facets should be included, similar to those outlined by Daniel W. Van Ness in Restorative Justice in Prison (2005). These include:
● A common sense attempt to develop offender awareness of the impact of their crimes as well as empathy for their victims. Our aim is a curriculum similar to that of victimology courses that introduce the student (offender) to the harms caused by crime and the needs created as a result. Other forms of victim awareness that should be introduced as a hub of the GROC RJ program are victim impact panels where groups of like victims tell stories of their trauma and healing. As a compliment to the panels, encounters between surrogate victims and offenders should be utilized.
● Encouraging and facilitating a manner in which offenders may make amends to their victims, even if in an indirect manner. While this is a challenging undertaking it is far from impossible. Currently several states mandate that their District Attorney’s offices maintain a library of amend letters written by offenders and notify victims of the letters’ availability for their review.
● The restoration of relationships between offenders and the community is an important aspect of any RJ program. The development of a relationship between the GROC offender population and the local community would be invaluable. This differs from indirect restitution because it involves breaking down the isolation and separation of prisoners from the free world. The development of a true RJ project by offenders enrolled in the program that has a tangible impact on the local community should be incorporated into the curriculum. This sort of project helps the local community overcome the mystification of prisoners as totally evil human beings who have nothing to contribute to society. This mystification contributes to community fear and isolation and erodes the offender’s ability to function successfully upon release.
● Developing a culture within GROC where conflicts are resolved peacefully. This includes conflict resolution courses, the training of offender and staff mediators to recognize and resolve conflict, as well as using these mediations as alternatives to formal grievance and disciplinary procedures. Perhaps mediations may be used to supplement the current informal resolution process outlined in Departmental Operating Procedure 861.1.
● Most ambitious of all is the facilitation of direct encounters in person or via tele/video conferencing between offenders and their victims. In fact, 53.1-30, B, Code of Virginia mandates the DOC facilitate such encounters should the victim so desire. This amendment to the statute was sought and passed at the behest of the mother of a Virginia murder victim who wished to have exactly such a direct encounter with her daughter’s killer. Numerous testimonials and studies speak to the far reaching benefits of these conferences to both victims and offenders alike. However, given the serious nature of the crimes committed by the offenders and the sensitivity that must be extended to the victims, these encounters should be voluntary for all participants and will likely entail extensive preparation.
A victim oriented offender rehabilitation program true to the principles of RJ is our goal. As a compliment to the existing therapeutic programs being administered, we believe a properly designed and facilitated RJ initiative as outlined above should be developed and implemented as soon as is practicable.
APPEAL FOR RESOURCES/SUPPORT:
Our goal in the coming months is to enlist support and resources in order to help develop a comprehensive program curriculum. Upon completion, we plan to present the finalized framework to VADOC administration for consideration and implementation as a pilot program at GROC. We understand this is a difficult undertaking given our status as inmates within the correctional system. However, we do have many individuals and organizations that are supportive of our efforts. We have done a vast amount of reading and research and continue to study RJ texts, as well as articles cited in our readings. We work hard and are persistent in our efforts. We have had success jointly and severally developing, proposing, and implementing therapeutic, religious, recreational, and environmental programs within VADOC facilities. Over the previous twelve months both an active recycling/sustainability initiative and a dog obedience training program have been successfully implemented at GROC largely due to our efforts.
We are requesting your aide and assistance in our efforts to fully develop this program. Any suggestions, resources, guidance, referrals, or active role you would be willing to offer or assume would be most appreciated. We are very grateful for any support you are able to lend us in pursuit of our goals. We look forward to working with you.