Can Restorative Justice Save Us? A Look at an Alternative to Mass Incarceration

Denise Curtis, Coordinator of the Restorative Community Conferencing Program at Community Works
By Felicia Gustin
Nov 4, 2013

The statistics are shameful – some 2.3 million people are locked up in the United States, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of these, a disproportionate number are Black and Brown. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

For young people of color, the data is especially alarming. According to The Sentencing Project, even though African American juveniles are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.

In “No Place for Kids,” a 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report, author Richard A. Mendel writes, “America’s heavy reliance on juvenile incarceration is unique among the world’s developed nations,” pointing to a international comparison that found the U.S locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. “A number of nations essentially don’t incarcerate minors at all,” Mendel added. “In other words, mass incarceration of troubled and troublemaking adolescents is nei­ther inevitable nor necessary in a modern society.”

So what is the solution? Denise Curtis, who coordinates the Restorative Community Conferencing Program at Oakland-based Community Works, talked to War Times about a viable alternative to this country’s mass incarceration of youth.

“Restorative justice is a different approach to crime,” Curtis explained. “Our current justice system asks: What law was broken? Who broke it? and How should they be punished? Restorative justice asks: Who has been harmed? What needs have arisen because of the harm? and Whose responsibility is it to make things as right as they can?”

Restorative justice also allows victims to have a voice. “In our current system, the victim is very much left out of things and is nothing more than a witness,” Curtis pointed out. “In restorative justice, however, their needs are one of the primary moving forces in the process.”

In the U.S., there are a limited number of restorative justice programs around the country. In Oakland, Curtis’ program works with youth cases referred by the District Attorney. These can include felonies such as assault, robbery and burglary. The Oakland Unified School District has also successfully incorporated restorative justice practices as an alternative to expelling and suspending youth which, according to Curtis, “impact Black and Brown youth disproportionately much more than white youth.”

There are variations of restorative justice programs in Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, among other cities, and according to a 2007 University of Pennsylvania study, they have been effective at reducing recidivism. When used in schools, suspensions drop significantly.

So how does it work? Typically, a trained coordinator will first meet separately with the victim and the responsible youth. “We call them responsible youth because they are responsible for something bad happening to someone else, but they are equally capable and responsible for turning things around,” Curtis explains.

Later, they come together in what is called a restorative community conference  - the victim, the responsible youth, the coordinator, a representative from law enforcement, people there to support the victim and responsible youth (such as family members), and representatives from the community.

Community participation, says Curtis, is key. “In our conferences we have community members because we know when a crime happens, it may physically affect only one person but it also affects the whole community. When two or three houses on a block get broken into, the whole community is concerned. When one elder person is assaulted, all the elders in the community are scared to go out. So we bring community folks into our conferences so young people can get an understanding of the full impact of their actions. Plus, through the consensus process of conferencing a stronger, safer, more resilient community is built for all.”

In the restorative community conference, each participant has a voice.  Explains Curtis, “We hear what happened and how it impacted folks. We also hear from the person who was harmed and what needs to happen to make things right. From there, conference participants come up with a plan for the youth to do the best they can to put things as right as possible.”

That plan includes ways the offender can heal the harm to the victim and the community with Community Works staffers working with the youth and their family to help them stay on track.

While restorative justice practices in the criminal justice system are fairly new, Curtis says its roots lie in the traditional practics of Indigenous communities in Africa, the Americas, and New Zealand. “A lot of restorative justice practices come from Native and Indigenous communities who have retained the teachings of our ancestors and have been generous enough to share it with those of us who have lost these practices. The concept of “all our relations” is an intregal part of restorative justice.”

So what will it take for restorative justice to become more widespread in this country? Already the practice has successfully taken hold in a number of nations – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and Brazil, to name a few. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is based on the principles of restorative justice.

But here in the United States, according to Curtis, it’s going to taken a major paradigm shift. “It’s going to take a major shift in our country around race, around what safety looks like, what it takes for everyone to be safe, and a willingness to put time and money into these kinds of efforts,” she said.

US Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced sweeping criminal justice system reforms: “…widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. ... It imposes a significant economic burden -- totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone -- and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

Some of those human and moral costs include overcrowded prisons and inhumane conditions, high rates of recidivism, families and communities torn apart, thousands, perhaps millions, disenfranchised by losing voting rights and denied equal access to employment, housing, and public benefits.

Yet despite the potential that restorative justice holds for transforming a fractured system, funding is uncertain. In many cities, the emphasis is on spending millions of dollars on local police and the militarization of local police forces is on the rise.

“If mass incarceration was going to work, it would have worked,” says Curtis. “There really needs to be a whole understanding and appreciation for the fact that we can’t arrest our way to safety for a community. Is a community safe because you lock up every other Black youth? Or is a community safe because those youth have things to do and their community is able to support them and some of their dreams and hopes can come true?”

Those are the questions before us as a nation and restorative justice is one possible solution that we can’t afford to ignore.

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To learn about Restorative Justice Programs around the country:

Community Works Restorative Community Conferencing, Oakland -

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth -

Common Justice, New York -

Community Conferencing Center, Baltimore -

The Center for Restorative Approaches, New Orleans -

National Council on Crime and Deliquency -

Restorative Justice around the world -

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

More by Felicia Gustin:

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