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Restorative Justice Programs Can Work in Small Communities

May 20, 2022, 8:00 AM

During a videoconference in November 2021 with the St. Louis police officer who shot her in 2019, Ashley Hall told the officer she forgave her. It was a powerful moment between a crime victim and an accused person, and one that rarely occurs in the traditional criminal justice system.

It happened because Hall agreed to participate in a restorative justice mediation program in which she met with the police officer, despite her physical pain and the ongoing psychological anguish that resulted from the incident.

This St. Louis case is just one example of how restorative justice has helped a community heal. The goal of restorative justice programs is to bring healing to both parties by facilitating a discourse between the victims and those accused of wrongdoing.

Benefits Felt in Smaller Communities

Restorative justice initiatives are being implemented at an impressive rate by prosecutors serving communities of all sizes across the country. As prosecutors join the movement for innovation and criminal justice reform, it is crucial that these programs are implemented properly and given the room and support to succeed.

In that spirit, with the support of the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College in New York City recently launched its Beyond Big Cities Initiative, a national network of prosecutors serving smaller and rural regions to share best practices at this critical time.

Restorative justice was the first topic the group discussed at its first meeting in July 2021 because of the outsized impact it could have on small communities. Limited but promising research shows that restorative justice can reduce recidivism when compared to traditional criminal justice responses.

Furthermore, many crime victims who take part in a restorative justice program report being satisfied with the process. Our conversations at Beyond Big Cities meetings revealed that small counties have unique characteristics that increase the likelihood of community transformation and healing through restorative justice.

In smaller communities, for example, the victim and accused are more likely to interact again. Mending the harm will likely provide long-term benefits to the community. In addition, some smaller jurisdictions have significantly less bureaucracy, allowing them to establish a restorative justice program more quickly and efficiently.

In 2020, the Office of the District Attorney in Cumberland County, Maine, launched its first restorative justice program accepting cases involving assault, minor property crimes, driving offenses and theft for both juveniles and adults. The DA’s office is now scheduled to expand the program to more serious misdemeanors, and minor felonies where involvement could result in a reduced sentence.

Victim involvement is encouraged but never required. The victims who do participate have found it enlightening and eye opening to learn why their perpetrators harmed them. Many victims have also appreciated the accused’s willingness to take accountability.

A Notable Example of the Restorative Process

One notable example involved a man who was charged with the violation of a female companion’s privacy. The victim, who had heard of restorative justice, wanted to participate in a restorative process.

During the dialogue, the victim had the opportunity to confront and hold the accused accountable for the harm that he caused. The man was remorseful and left with a better understanding of the effect he had on her.

The victim also felt closure and that her feelings had been acknowledged. So far, over 350 participants have taken part in the restorative justice program in Cumberland County with an over 95% success rate.

In the district attorney’s office in Georgia’s Western Judicial District, we are working to make good on a proudly progressive campaign promise to bring restorative justice to our community. With the support of the Georgia Conflict Center, we are developing a community-based restorative justice program that will reduce incarceration rates by balancing the needs of victims with the accused person’s need for rehabilitation and reintegration.

The Beyond Big Cities Initiative conversations showed us that each community has unique circumstances and goals when looking to restorative justice. We took that into account when publishing Restorative Justice: A Best Practice Guide for Prosecutors in Smaller Jurisdictions. The guide presents restorative justice as a practical option for prosecutors within smaller jurisdictions and provides a blueprint for developing their own restorative justice programs.

Forgiveness should not be a rarity in our criminal system. Restorative justice is one way the system can move from solely punishment to helping communities heal, and prosecutors from smaller jurisdictions should lead the way in making this practice more common.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Deborah Gonzalez is the district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit (Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties) in Georgia. She is the first female DA in the circuit, the first Latina DA in Georgia history, and the first female Puerto Rican DA in the US.

Jonathan Sahrbeck is the district attorney for Cumberland County, Maine. He previously worked as a prosecutor in Maine and Massachusetts, and has advocated for increased prevention and education to address a variety of criminal justice issues, as well as a closer examination of new programs to assist victims and minimize recidivism.

Chantelle Williams serves as a policy attorney at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) where she oversees the organization’s initiatives, leads engagement with external partners, and writes policy papers focused on innovative approaches to prosecution. She previously served as an assistant district attorney in Bronx County, N.Y.