Restorative justice takes time: Creating a less incarcerated society will need local support, effort
If you recognize that mass incarceration as a strategy in dealing with crime is failing in the U.S., then you also become responsible to try something different.
That’s the philosophy behind exploring an alternative idea called restorative justice, an effort which seeks to reduce mass incarceration.
While the concept will take a nationwide approach, it will have to be implemented on a local scale, which is why law enforcement agencies across the country, Eagle County included, have been looking at the idea in recent years.
One of the country’s top voices in favor of restorative justice is Danielle Sered, who works with the restorative justice nonprofit Common Justice in Brooklyn, New York, and authored a book about her work published in 2019, “Until we reckon.”
Sered defines restorative justice as a decision making process that involves those most directly impacted by a given harm in identifying the pathway toward repair, and then carrying out the actions to get there.
While it sounds simple, it’s “markedly different than the criminal justice system as we know it,” Sered writes.
Sered has worked with hundreds of survivors and perpetrators of violence in New York, and through the alternative to incarceration program at Common Justice, works to see those directly impacted by acts of violence receive the opportunity “to shape what repair will look like,” in her words. “And in the case of the responsible party, to carry out that repair instead of going to prison.”
In one case, when a victim noticed he had developed a fear of approaching the place where he was stabbed, the program helped ensure the assailant meet him at the place where the stabbing occurred, greet him respectfully and shake his hand.
“It seemed simple enough, but for the harmed party, this allowed him to overwrite the experience of trauma, which was situated, for him, in a specific place,” Sered writes.
Fewer than 6 percent of Common Justice’s participants had been removed from the program for recidivism, Sered wrote in 2018, and between 2012 and 2018 only one person had been terminated because of a new crime.
Locally, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department and others have looked into restorative justice.
Sheriff James van Beek said the county has taken steps in that direction in years past, and the 5th judicial district’s adult diversion program, which allows adult offenders who have committed felonies to obtain case resolutions that do not involve proceeding through the court system or a resulting criminal record, is a step that could be built upon in an effort to pursue restorative justice in Eagle County.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, who also acknowledges the benefits of restorative justice, says some of the creative sentencing that occurs under Vail Judge Cyrus “Buck” Allen fits the definition of restorative justice and also helps keep people out of jail.
Allen says it’s easy to tout creative and thoughtful approaches to justice in his courtroom, where he only sees misdemeanor offenses, and has plenty of time to talk to the people before him.
“At the lower levels of courts, you can talk to people more personally, especially when you don’t have a large docket where you have to get through 50 or 60 people in the morning,” Allen said.
In Vail, it comes down to something the community knows well — luxury.
“I have the luxury of time,” Allen said. “In that the docket isn’t so heavy that I have to go from one case to the next and keep a quick pace. I can spend time with each individual, and talk to them about what happened, why they got into trouble … I listen to what they have to say, and then try to tailor my approach to them based on who they are, not just the type of offense they committed. Talk to them on a more personal level.”
Van Beek also noted that the willingness to devote time to the effort is what makes the difference in the successful implementation of a restorative justice program.
“It can eat up a lot of time, depending on how you structure it,” van Beek said. “The majority of it is time and actually being able to facilitate and bring everybody together and coordinate. Because it doesn’t just happen by osmosis. The victim has to be willing to participate in this, and other community members have to be willing to participate in this. It can be a substantial commitment of all those players, to do this.”
“It’s more about the time and energy to have these sit-down conversations around the incident that occurred, and how it impacted the victim,” Henninger said.
Those conversations are known as circles in many restorative justice approaches.
In youth restorative justice efforts undertaken by van Beek in the past, “I had one kid, I think it was close to two, two and a half years, that I was mentoring him,” van Beek said.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort, van Beek adds.
And the Sheriff knows a good way to do it, as well.
The logical starting point would be an examination of how the already active adult diversion program in the 5th judicial district frees up resources in other areas, van Beek said. That program is still new, but those numbers could help justify an expansion of that program, which could approach the type of restorative justice that proponents of the effort would like to see.
“It’s going to take a while to be able to show a strong track record,” van Beek said. “But I believe it could be built upon, if we could say we’ve had a lot of success here, because of this we were able to reduce 10 percent of the court cases (for example),” van Beek said. “And if we can show that of the 100 people who went through this program, 99 of them didn’t re-offend (for example) … And then from there, how can we improve, and how can we take the next step, so we had basic criteria that we started with, now we’re going to go to the next criteria.”
Future and past
Many of the proponents of restorative justice, including Sered, are themselves survivors of violence.
Locally, Gypsum resident Seth Ryan Levy fits into that category as a victim of a violent crime.
Levy shared his story at a movie event in Minturn over the summer, where restorative justice proponents invited the community to view “How to love your enemy,” a documentary about the Longmont Police Department’s effort to start using a restorative justice approach.
“The assailant, he ended up going to jail for 10 years, it never did anything for me and I actually ended up feeling bad for the guy,” Levy told producers from Free the People, the group that made “How to love your enemy.“
The incident happened long before Levy moved to Eagle County.
“The only time I ever even saw (the assailant) was in court,” Levy said. “I never heard him say ‘I’m sorry,’ never heard him show any remorse or admit guilt because in the system that we have, it is detrimental to do that. And so, I didn’t feel whole from that.”
Now a proponent of restorative justice, Levy says he wishes it was an option at that time.
“I would have probably gone that route,” he said. “And I want that to be an option for people in the future.”
In looking to the future, restorative justice proponents take a cue from the past.
“With its roots tracing back to wide range of indigenous practices, much of restorative justice as we implement it in the United States today has its origins in circles practiced by the plains people in North America, the Maori in New Zealand, and as Dr. Morris Jenkins has taught us, a variety of African communities,” Sered writes. “When we combine the inherent ability of human beings to participate in transforming him with some of the centuries old tools for doing so, we open pathways to safety and justice that are otherwise unavailable.”