Restorative Justice: A Promising Alternative to Traditional Criminal Justice
By Hazel Martello
Most of us in Illinois can remember the rhetoric Donald Trump used when talking about crime in America during his 2016 campaign. It’s hard to forget when he singled out Chicago, Illinois so many times. To Trump, Chicago was overrun by crime, with our streets covered in “horrible carnage” . Trump also famously claimed he knew a Chicago police officer who, given the right resources, could “solve” all of Chicago’s crime problems simply by “being very much tougher” on crime. This rhetoric failed to provide any real solutions for affected communities in Illinois, instead misrepresenting the complexity of crime in Illinois by ignoring the ways structural racism, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and lack of faith in law enforcement all contribute to issues in our criminal justice system.
Now in the 2020 presidential elections, Trump has gone largely silent on this issue while his democratic challengers have seized the opportunity to push for progressive policies. These policies include the federal legalization of marijuana, banning capital punishment, and ending inhumane solitary confinement. These are tangible, evidence-based measures, and would certainly move towards the reduction of mass incarceration of minorities and preventing the mistreatment of prisoners.
While they’re a great start, they are merely a start. We’re going to need something entirely different if we want to see real justice within the United States. In the past few decades, there’s been a growing realization that the very foundation of our criminal justice system lacks certain key tools to preventing crime in the first place.
Right now, it’s a system that can be characterized as primarily “punitive criminal justice,” meaning it’s strong on deterring crime with negative consequences (such as fines or prison sentences), on incapacitating offenders by removing them from the public they’ve harmed, and on delivering retribution for crimes committed. But according to most criminal and legal scholars, there should be five major purposes of a functional criminal justice system; deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution are only three of them. Our present punitive criminal justice system fails with two major purposes of criminal justice systems: rehabilitation and restoration.
Punitive justice systems rest on the idea that if there are severe enough consequences for committing a crime, people will simply stop committing those crimes. But this paints all crimes as a clear-cut matter of being a deliberate “choice”, when we know there are many underlying factors that can lead someone to breaking the law and that “choosing” to break the law is not an accurate explanation for criminal activity. When we fail to address underlying factors, we end up with higher rates of criminal activity overall, higher rates of repeated offenses, and greater long-term harm being done to both the offender and their community.
But our criminal justice system doesn’t have to be like this. Starting in the 1990s, scholars responded to the flaws of our punitive criminal justice system, and proposed an alternative that prioritized rehabilitation of the offender, and restoration of justice to their community. This alternative kind of criminal justice system is called “Restorative Justice”, and it’s already seeing results locally.
Illinois’ North Lawndale community has had its own restorative justice community court since 2017. The restorative justice court uses “peace circles,” which guide a conversation between non-violent offenders and the person they’ve harmed. Through the process of a peace circle, the person charged takes responsibility for the harm they’ve caused by hearing how their crime has impacted the victim. The victim then gets the chance not only to express how the crime has affected them, but to explain to the offender what would need to be done in order to correct that harm. The two sides create a “Repair of Harm Agreement” where the offender agrees to make reparations to the victim. Once the agreement is completed, the case is dismissed.
The process of North Lawndale’s restorative justice court usually takes just six to twelve months to complete a case from start to finish. The process strengthens the relationships of community members, delivers real justice by repairing harm done, and helps offenders leave the process with a clean criminal record, which won’t place barriers on future employment. The benefits of the restorative justice court aren’t limited to just the North Lawndale community either. Every individual who goes through the restorative justice court allows the state to avoid the high costs of trials and sentences, and it works to reduce the likelihood of the individual’s future involvement in the criminal justice system.
While it’s not taken hold yet at a federal level, we’re seeing increased support for restorative justice here in Illinois. Congressional candidate Robert Emmons Jr., who is running in Illinois’ 1st district on a platform of eliminating everyday gun violence, lists a “complete overhaul” of our criminal justice system as one of his political campaign’s top priorities. Whereas his opponent, incumbent Bobby Rush, signed the 1994 Crime Bill, promising tough-on-crime policies that resulted in mass incarceration and lasting harms on Chicago’s minority communities, Emmons’ campaign thinks it’s time for Chicago politics to take a more productive approach to criminal justice. Setting himself apart even from some of the most progressive candidates in the nation, Emmons is advocating for every single detention center and prison facility to implement restorative justice practices as a start to restoring communities and rehabilitating offenders.
There are, of course, still a lot of questions about restorative justice. We still don’t know exactly what the limitations of restorative justice are, or in precisely which situations it can be employed most effectively. But we do know that it’s already making positive changes in the communities that have embraced restorative justice practices. And in Illinois, 2020 elections could decide the role restorative justice takes in our criminal justice system for years to come, making it more important than ever to vote, volunteer, and support candidates with the right progressive policies.