I recently returned from a 3-day International Restorative Justice Conference held at Vermont Law School in Burlington. There was a wide range of topics and lively keynote speakers, including Robert Sand, director of the Center for Justice Reform, Judge Robert Yazzie from the Navaho Nation and Donna Hicks whose theme was Dignity and the research she has done around its critical role as both a driver in human conflict and a key element in its resolution.
I became aware during one of the plenary sessions that sitting a few rows from me was a middle-aged man who had been deeply wronged by the state. The workshop dealing with his case is one I will never forget. Due to prosecutors, detectives, and police’ unethical and incompetent practice, this man was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The consequence of this enormous injustice was that he spent almost 25 years behind bars, much of it in solitary confinement. He was finally released due to the efforts of the North Carolina Capital RJ Program. To add injustice upon injustice, because of recent changes to the law, it is almost impossible for the wrongfully incarcerated to claim compensation. Both attorneys working in this program have experienced PTSD over the years defending capital cases.
Other workshops dealt with organizational and systemic aspects of integrating restorative practices into specific settings (Education, Healthcare, Public Safety, Environmental Disputes, Youth Justice Services, Child Protection). Several researchers from the UK shared their experiences of implementing restorative approaches into the City of Hull as it strives to become a fully restorative city.
Some dealt with irreversible harm and how a restorative process can help survivors reclaim their lives and heal from the trauma caused by harm. This workshop examined racial attacks fuelled by social media at two California High Schools that resulted in very different outcomes. The presenters shared the learning from the intervention that did not go well and was halted early on, and from the intervention where the result was positive. It was fascinating to contemplate and analyse the range of complexities involved in preparing and running interventions where so much harm, fear and confusion had been experienced by students and staff.
The decision to use a restorative approach to address the historical racial and sexual abuse at The Home for Colored Children in Nova Scotia was emotionally cathartic for those who had been harmed. The survivors, now middle aged, described their gratitude and deep satisfaction with the process and how it had helped to heal childhood traumas that had remained buried for decades. An acknowledgement by state and government officials of the longstanding institutional racism that had perpetuated the harm, and their commitment to address it across state agencies contributed to the positive result for the survivors.
In another case in Nova Scotia, a grieving father whose son had died in police custody found peaceful resolution. Until the restorative circle with police officers the father and his family had found no peace and no justice. Their satisfaction with the process was deep.
Two additional things about the conference stand out for me.
Firstly, there is overwhelming dissatisfaction with the current legal system by all those affected by harm, and there is consensus that the traditional legal process is broken. It is built on blame and punishment and does next to nothing to address the root causes of crime and help those most affected heal and reintegrate. Hence the willingness of a range of agencies and institutions to engage in a restorative approach, a process that they have little experience with, but are willing to try with the proper support and guidance (The Nova Scotia cases were supported by Jennifer Lewellyn, Professor of Law at Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, a committed and passionate advocate for restorative approaches).
Secondly, I was moved by the tribute paid to Native American Peoples by some of the keynote speakers. Several began their address by acknowledging they were standing on land originally home to indigenous people and their tribes. This is fitting given that restorative processes were practiced for millennia by indigenous peoples, and long before they were adopted by the modern world. There is a growing societal recognition of the efficacy and healing potential of these ancient restorative approaches for all affected by an offence. One can only hope that more restorative approaches for all levels of offending and wrongdoing will be integrated into a wider range of public and private policies and become the norm for addressing harm and wrongdoing, particularly when the harm is relational. A restorative approach can run alongside a criminal-legal system and create processes that deliver justice and along with that, healing and re-integration.
Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks, 2011, Yale University Press
Public Inquiry: Restorative Approaches in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children:
Human Rights Inquiry
Death in Custody
Dawnland (Truth and Reconciliation in Maine: child welfare authorities and Native communities) Directors: Adam Mazo and Ben Pendler- Cudlip
Producer N. Bruce Duthu
Coming Home – Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program for returning offenders. Produced and directed by Bess O’Brien