These words — restorative justice — seem to pop up more and more in various media stories. Until eight years ago, I knew little about it or particularly cared. Then in one of my visits to San Quentin State Prison, I was invited by a friend inside to join a new group to study the issue. A sheer blessing!
For the next few months, a group of about 15 of us met weekly. The result — a document of profound insight and realistic application. The document compares what we have employed until now, criminal justice, with what a system based on restorative justice would look like. In criminal justice, a crime is considered a violation of law demanding that the state determine degree of guilt and affix proper punishment, their only official responsibility. In restorative justice, a crime is a violation of people, their relationships and a disruption of the community’s good order. The focus is on healing and restoring. The action required is for the offender to understand in depth what he has done and take full responsibility; for the victim to have his or her needs — physical and emotional — addressed; and for the community to uncover and reform areas present that are conducive to criminal activity.
This insightful document proceeds to list six specific areas that need to be addressed to fully implement a restorative approach to justice. I will merely list them, yet each one could easily be a topic for full elaboration. They are: 1). Prevention and alternatives to incarceration; 2). Fully addressing the needs of victims and survivors of crime; 3). Needs of offenders’ families and maintaining family preservation; 4). Prisoner education; 5). Preparation for release, adequate programs for reintegration; and 6). Needs of long-term prisoners subject to review and decision by the Board of Parole hearings.
Let me say that all this wisdom came basically from the men at San Quentin. Who better to understand the system and its needs?
Let me say that the restorative justice movement is alive and well at San Quentin. Every Thursday evening, more than 100 residents meet with a handful of outside folks. In groups of 10 or so, there is ongoing discussion on personal responsibility, concern for victims, what influence the men inside can have on their outside communities, especially the youth. Some of the testimony I hear from these men is moving, inspiring and at a sharing level it would be hard to match in the world at large.
Let me say that this group sponsors at least two all-day Saturday seminars every year where 50 to 60 outside guests meet with the residents to promote these ideas inside and out. I have never experienced anything more profound than when on these days victims testify to their challenges to heal, to forgive, even to reconcile with offenders. Forgiveness is so, so meaningful and powerful.
Let me say that what I have described here would almost surely not be possible in any of the 33 state prisons except San Quentin. That is because San Quentin, being located in the heart of the Bay Area, has 3,000 volunteers a month promoting the very things the document I described above suggests — primarily education and personal growth. No other institution has the will or wherewithall to match this. Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger some time back added the word rehabilitation to the Department of Corrections title. My facetious remark is that only printers profited from this move because they had to redo the stationery and business cards.
Expanding the impact the principles of restorative justice can exert, more and more school districts and programs dealing with youth are employing them to address negative behavior among young people. Just consider how more and more the issue of truancy is making news.
On another level, San Mateo County is about to build a new jail. I have had the opportunity to be a part of a jail planning group making sure the new facility has space to hold programs and promotes the kinds that address the needs of those incarcerated to become productive citizens. It is interesting the state of California, pushed to the wall by the federal judges demanding a reduction of inmate population and revision of the health care system, is coming to the realization at last that restorative justice might be the better way to go to promote true justice.
As I write this, I am aware that there are so many other dimensions I want to share with you in this area that is critical to all of us in some way, I hope this is not the last of my sharing with you. My hope is that at least this much may tweak your interest in issues that do affect us all.
John Kelly, a proud native of San Francisco, has lived on the Peninsula since 1956. He spent 15 years on the faculty of Serra High School, another 15 as director of Samaritan House and has volunteered in various self-help programs at San Quentin for more than 20 years. He is currently on the Board of the Service League and the San Mateo Police Activities League.