Restorative Justice is Storytelling
For me, this election has shown how powerful storytelling can be, especially when we are telling the story to ourselves and desperate to believe. Media, social or otherwise, makes it easy to create an echo chamber of stories, curated to tell us exactly what we want hear. It's hard to overstate how dangerous it is to privilege our own stories over others, particularly as we struggle to understand puzzling (to us) behavior. Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult to engage folks from other backgrounds and viewpoints, to grow compassion for them, to have the honor of hearing their stories. It's a learning that I'm taking away as we move into this next, strange chapter for our country.
On that note, I think it's also important to remember how powerful the narrative of our criminal justice system is and how it suffers from the same problems. For example, California voters passed on another chance to repeal the death penalty and instead voted to speed it up, which follows from a story that we've been telling ourselves for a long time: that "good guys" put away "bad guys," that crimes must be responded to with punishment, that vengeance is an effective policy choice.
Restorative Justice is powerful because it creates the space for many stories to be told. Gathering everyone together who was affected by wrongdoing, even the wrongdoer herself, empowers everyone to speak, to listen, to learn, to heal. I think we need some of that right now. So, I'm republishing a piece I wrote last year, "Restorative Justice is Storytelling," which calls for an expanded definition of Restorative Justice that incorporates the importance of storytelling. Read it below:
Restorative Justice is Storytelling
(Published 12/2015 on medium.com)
As a relatively new movement in American criminal justice reform, Restorative Justice (RJ) is still being shaped and defined. One can ask ten different practitioners what RJ is and they will respond with ten different answers. However, a common thread among these different conceptions of RJ is that it’s more victim-centered than traditional criminal justice; many believe that whatever the restorative process looks like (and it can look like a lot of different things), it includes the victim of the crime in a way that is distinctive and important to the process as a whole.
Admittedly, the most compelling part of RJ in practice is the moment when a victim (or a family member of a victim) of violent crime meets the offender in dialogue. These encounters must be guided by a skilled facilitator and can be difficult but also healing. They show that there is a need that is not being met by the traditional criminal justice system: many people affected by crime want to talk about it, and they often want to talk about it with others who were involved, such as the offender herself, their family, and community members.
But what about crimes that do not have victims, or crimes against large businesses or retailers where the victim is not any one person but the organization itself? If the common thread of RJ is its victim-centeredness then can a restorative process be created that can deal with victimless crimes? Does it become less restorative just by virtue of the lack of a victim?
In the City of Los Angeles, low-level crimes such as petty theft and vandalism are eligible for pre-filing diversion, an alternate method of dealing with low-level adult crime that involves the community instead of courts and lawyers. The Los Angeles City Attorney administers pre-filing diversion after eligible offenders have been arrested or cited but before the decision to file criminal charges has been made. Once they’ve been diverted, offenders meet with members of the community who live in the area where the crime was committed to talk about why they did it, what the effects of it were, and how to move forward in a positive way.
Given the common definition of RJ described above, a petty theft against a big box retailer such as Walmart could only be handled restoratively if the victim (i.e. someone from Walmart, a manager or loss prevention associate) was involved. And yet, even if there is no victim or the victim is not available, we find that the diverted person still wants to talk about her crime, wants to express her embarrassment at being detained for several hours by Walmart’s loss prevention personnel, wants to describe the difficult divorce she is going through, the health problems she has, her interest in getting a nursing license, how she likes to write, how she is proud of her children and would never want them to go through this.
We find that people want to listen too. The petty theft happened somewhere, in a community of people who also shop at Walmart. They may have seen the person who was diverted in the parking lot getting handcuffed or they may have experienced a price increase because of frequent thefts or they may have decided not to shop at that Walmart because of its reputation as an easy target for theft. Despite not being direct victims, people in the community are nevertheless affected by petty theft at the local Walmart. They want to know why it happens and to make sure that it never happens again.
Restorative practices create a space for people who have been affected by crime to meet together and talk about their experiences. This itself is restorative, healing, and ultimately valuable for everyone involved. Hearing the stories of people who have a relationship with a criminal act broadens the awareness of all involved, allows them greater perspective into the hows and whys of crime. Most importantly, storytelling grows compassion among individuals who find themselves connected by wrongdoing.
One reason why the victim may be so important to RJ is because their stories are often the hardest to hear, the most emotionally resonant, and the most easily silenced. The victim does not really have a place in our traditional criminal justice system because their needs are quickly replaced by the needs of the State who, once criminal litigation begins, becomes the official victim. The actual victim of the crime is relegated to the sidelines in a legal sleight of hand, even though they are the direct recipient of the wrongdoing. This often makes closure for victims very hard as they play little to no role in the “justice” that is served, nor do they have much say in what exactly “justice” might look like in their situation. Our laws dictate what justice is, not the needs or wishes of the victim of the crime. Understanding this, it is important to create an alternative space where the victim feels safe to express their needs and see them relate to the ultimate outcome.
The same storytelling process is constructive for every party to wrongdoing, including the person who committed the crime. Our criminal justice system is equally as insensitive to the reasons why the crime was committed as it is to the effects of that crime on people. Our adversarial process is mostly concerned with determining guilt or innocence and it excels as a system of fact-finding for that purpose. Only rarely, and usually only after a defendant has been convicted, does the life story of the defendant factor into the process for sentencing and even then, the particular details have little bearing on sentences, which are usually established by statute. In the case of low-level crimes, personal details of the defendant are mostly ignored unless they bear on whether they will be able to pay court fines and fees.
In our traditional criminal justice system, one story matters: the story of whether the defendant committed the crime or not. All other stories are collateral, if not disregarded. For this reason, all those involved in the wrongdoing -- victim, defendant, family, community -- often have many unresolved feelings as the case comes to an end. The criminal justice system has done its job but, unfortunately, that rarely meets the needs of anyone else.
Restorative Justice is restorative precisely because it seeks to bring closure and balance to all those affected by crime in a way that the criminal justice system does not even begin to contemplate. The power of storytelling among the victim, offender, and others establishes compassion to an extent where everyone can move forward and begin to heal. Thinking of RJ as primarily victim-centered does not give this truly innovative theory of justice the credit it deserves: with the help of a skilled facilitator, RJ stakes out a safe place for people to meet on their own terms to discuss a traumatic and painful event and to repair harm caused to bodies, minds, property, and relationships. In order to do this, a victim’s participation is sufficient but not necessary. What is necessary is creating a space in which everyone feels free to tell their stories. Only through telling and listening can we begin to heal.