Police have no place in restorative justice programs

In early October, the Gazette published an article (“Police, DA eye restorative justice model”) on the restorative justice collaboration ...

In early October, the Gazette published an article (“Police, DA eye restorative justice model”) on the restorative justice collaboration between local police departments and an organization called C4RJ that will provide an alternative pathway for addressing “crime” in Hampshire County. According to the Northampton Police Department’s Restorative Justice Program, the restorative process can be utilized if three criteria are met: the person harmed is willing to forgo the court process in support of restorative justice, the person who committed the harm takes full responsibility for their actions, and the department can be reasonably sure of a safe process. The Administration & Operations Manual further outlines the criteria, policies and procedures that will govern the program, including the potential involvement of police in opening and closing circles.

When I first learned of the program, as someone who is currently enrolled in a restorative justice certification program, I was thrilled that the county would have a diversionary program that could keep people out of the criminal legal system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 70,000 different people are booked into jails in Massachusetts each year. At any given time, the majority of people incarcerated in local jails are held on pretrial, meaning they are legally innocent and not convicted of a “crime” and often aren’t released because they are unable to afford bail (which is determined by prosecutors). Importantly, as outlined by Prison Policy Initiative, “people who go to county and city jails are disproportionately likely to have a substance use disorder, suffer from a serious mental illness, and lack health insurance. They’re also significantly more likely to be unemployed, have incomes under $10,000, and lack a high school diploma.”

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2006 reported that 64% of people incarcerated in jails nationwide had symptoms of a mental health disorder and 76% of the same population struggled with substance use. The restorative justice program implemented by the Northampton Police Department, the Northwestern district attorney’s office and C4RJ will divert some people from the court system. People with “major mental health or addiction concerns” will not be eligible for participation in the program, however.

The defund movement has put considerable pressure on criminal legal systems, particularly police departments, to redistribute monetary resources toward programs and services that make our communities safer, such as affordable housing, education and mental health care. My concern is that the restorative justice program is being adopted as a “right on crime” response that provides some relief from the criminal legal system while keeping intact its scope, authority, control and resources. Participating police departments have publicly committed to paying $2,500 annually toward funding the program.

Community Works, a community-held restorative justice organization in Alameda County, California, reported that it cost $10,000 per case for their Restorative Community Conferences (RCC) program. Organizations like Community Works employ full-time staff who facilitate RCCs, oversee agreements, provide support to people who are harmed and offer community-based restorative circles and programs. They do not rely on police departments for their funding, which is critical given that restorative justice is about ending harm and violence, which police help create, as much as it is about reducing recidivism (re-arrests). Although they partner with district attorney’s offices to ensure that applicable cases are diverted and the potential charges are dropped upon completion of the program, they exist outside of the criminal legal system.

Restorative justice is not based on the same types of punitive or carceral logics that undergird our criminal legal system. It is not just a matter of addressing an incident between a “victim” and an “offender.” It is about helping to forge the kinds of communities that can address people’s needs before a crisis or incident occurs; it’s also about ensuring that when a harm does occur, the person harmed is provided a stake in what the accountability process looks like, and both the person harmed and the harm doer receive the supports they need to heal and transform, respectively.

Restorative justice is concerned with building up the capacity of our communities to reduce and respond to harms and to transform the conditions that fuel them. How can a restorative justice program that relies on police departments for funding be a vehicle for social change or care? We need a community-driven, well-resourced, autonomous restorative justice program that can divert people away from the court system and connect individuals to the programs and supports they need to become more secure — even those individuals who may not qualify for restorative justice. We need to fully fund the types of services that can minimize contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. And we need to change the conditions that fuel and legitimize the marginalization, impoverishment and criminalization of entire groups of people.

Danielle Squillante, a Northampton resident who holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Mount Holyoke College, is currently completing a restorative justice program at the University of San Diego. 

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Newsrust - US Top News: Police have no place in restorative justice programs
Police have no place in restorative justice programs
Newsrust - US Top News
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