With the new California state budget, the legislature allocated $5 million to fund an experimental “restorative justice” reform initiative. The criminal justice pilot program will be implemented in San Joaquin County over five years. San Joaquin is a logical choice as it has had a restorative justice program in place for more than 3 years, thanks to a $1 million yearly grant from the federal government. The new California budget allocation provides for a state-funded pilot program.
The restorative justice pilot is aimed at offenders who have committed serious crimes that have a potential for violence, such as robbery, assault, home burglary, or criminal threats. People charged with murder, rape, sexual assault or child abuse are not eligible to participate in the pilot program.
What is Restorative Justice?
According to the Chief Probation Officers of California, restorative justice is a process that “includes the affected parties in the work of identifying and repairing the harm caused by crime.”
The goal of the program is to help victims recover, and to help offenders avoid a criminal record and hopefully to avoid committing a subsequent crime.
The idea of restorative justice starts with the principle that crime causes harm and injury to victims and their families, to offenders and their families, and to the community at large. The purpose of the restorative justice process is to engage all parties affected by the crime, for the offender to make amends, and to help both victims and offenders “reintegrate” into the community – i.e., that both offender and victim can become active and productive members of the community.
Instead of conviction and prison, offenders meet with victims and together create a plan to make amends for the damage caused by the crime. Offenders typically must also go through counseling, and / or a substance abuse program, job preparation, or enroll in education programs, depending on the plan the parties agree to.
Victims engage directly with the offender in a mediated environment and can ask for monetary restitution for expenses they may have incurred, replacement of property, service to the victim or to the community; and other acts of restitution, such as an apology that acknowledges the crime, the harm, and expresses the offender’s regret for it.
Restorative justice has its roots in ancient and indigenous societies, however since the 1970’s and ‘80’s it has been gaining popularity and prominence in institutions and practices across the globe. Perhaps the most widely known restorative justice practice is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee that seeks accountability and healing for Apartheid. In 2002 the United Nations endorsed the use of restorative justice.
Who is Involved in the Restorative Justice Process?
Not every offender will be eligible for this kind of diversion program. First, the victim needs to consent to implementing the process. The district attorney, defense attorney, probation and law enforcement officials must also agree on a case by case basis. And, behavioral health professionals may evaluate if the offender is able to engage constructively with the process.
The offender, the victim, members of relevant social support and community groups, the defense attorney, and law enforcement must all consent to the ultimate plan for the offender that the process generates.
In addition those offenders that complete the process will be evaluated by tracking of any new crimes were committed by the graduate-offenders, and whether the program satisfied the victims and survivors.
The San Joaquin district attorney claims that the county program there has taken the recidivism rate from 70% down to 5% among those participating.
Transitioning Juvenile Justice to Restorative Justice
While this new California Restorative Justice program is for any age, California schools districts are increasingly implementing or testing restorative justice techniques to address behavioral issues on K-12 campuses rather than punitive measures or use of the justice system. In school settings the practice often involves a mediation style meeting.
The Oakland school district here in California has had a restorative justice program for nearly a decade to aimed at improving juvenile suspension rates and reducing punitive disciplinary actions. They show it has resulted in a 40% decrease in suspensions.
The Orange County department of education currently provides information and training for schools to develop prevention and intervention programs using restorative justice.
California Governor Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers are beginning to transition what is left of the state-run youth detention system to a rehabilitative and diversion model, including community and county restorative justice programs and practices.
Most of California’s juvenile facilities were closed in 2007 under a shift of juvenile case jurisdiction to the Division of Juvenile Justice and out of the adult justice system. Under the current state budget, youth responsibilities will be shifted again to the oversight of the California Health and Human Services Agency within a new Department of Youth and Community Restoration.
The counties of Los Angeles, Alameda, San Francisco, and Contra Costa have all opted to pilot and offer restorative justice as a sanctioned diversion program. This means when youth are arrested for a serious misdemeanor or felony the district attorney in those counties may refer the case to a community or county agency for facilitated mediation and a restorative justice plan. If all parties agree to the ultimate plan and it is completed, no charges are filed. With the result being no criminal record for the young person who may have committed a serious criminal act as a juvenile, and who will no longer have to battle a juvenile criminal record later in life.