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Restorative Justice: A Better Way for Victims of Crime?

By Kate Bryan and Anne Teigen  |  October 5, 2022

After her father was killed in a hit-and-run, she wanted the 13-year-old driver punished.

Until she didn’t.

“I had an epiphany one night: that he was 13 and did not wake up that day saying, ‘What 71-year-old man can I kill today?’ I did not want anyone else to experience what we were experiencing,” she told an NCSL meeting on restorative justice. “We had to do something to make it different. The current situation was not good for him, it was not good for us, and it was not a good for any future situation.

“We want him to grow up to replace the good man he took from us.”  

Restorative justice, a victim-centered alternative to traditional court processing, addresses the needs of victims of juvenile crime while holding young people accountable for their actions. During “Exploring Restorative Justice: A Juvenile Justice Policy Roundtable,” a meeting held in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 17-19, 2022, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, participants learned from a variety of justice system stakeholders about the challenges and potential benefits of restorative justice strategies for both the party harmed and the culpable individual.

Balance in the System

Balancing the needs of the victim, the young person who caused harm and the community is essential to restorative justice. Liane Rozzell, a senior policy associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says that most young people age out of delinquent behavior, and research has shown restorative justice to be especially effective in cases involving serious offenses.

“Juvenile brains are different,” says Kathryn Sinback, juvenile court administrator in Davidson County, Tenn. “We can’t believe that we are doing anything or changing behaviors by acting in a punitive way. The more people hear about how [restorative justice] has been impactful, the more people have been brought in.”

Victim advocate Valerie Craig and former public defender Dawn Deaner maintain that giving a voice to victims—no matter where they are in the judicial process, whether they suffered wrongdoing or committed an offense—has contributed to making this alternative justice strategy a success.

“It is really important to hear from victims who spread across a continuum. Harnessing that power, hearing from people who can speak to nuances, that’s how bridges get built,” Craig says. “We have shifted to an either-or society. And the problem with that is that nobody gets healed at the end of the day. How do we bring healing to the table and how does that look in practical application?”

Deaner says traditional court proceedings miss something that restorative justice acknowledges.

“To me, a defense lawyer, [restorative justice] expands who gets recognized as victims,” she says. “What does not get recognized as victimhood is the plight of juveniles in the system.”

Giving Victims a Voice

Roundtable participants learned about restorative justice laws around the nation and how these practices can be successfully applied in both urban and rural settings. “There are ways that restorative justice can work even better in rural communities because people already have existing relationships. The issues are all the same no matter where you go,” Deaner says.

Tennessee law allows organizations like the Raphah Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group, to facilitate restorative justice. The state also uses federal Victims of Crime Act funding to provide services for victims as well as at-risk and justice-involved youth. “Restorative justice is a way to account for harm as it moves through the community and account for ways to prevent more harm,” says Travis Claybrooks, a former Nashville police officer who is now CEO of the Raphah Institute. “Restorative justice requires progression, not necessarily opening the gates for all offenses.”

Giving a voice to those impacted by another’s misconduct has, in part, contributed to greater satisfaction with restorative justice compared with formal court processing, Stacy Miller, a Davidson County assistant district attorney, says.

“The value of [restorative justice] is to hear about different experiences,” former public defender Deaner says. “The freedom to talk and to hear perhaps creates a level of empathy and understanding of relative victimhood. Those experiences are very powerful. Restorative justice creates that.”

For the family who lost their husband and father in the hit-and-run, the restorative justice process allowed them to see the driver as a kid who made a horrible mistake.

“The young man feels remorse for his actions and aspires to become a scientist,” the victim’s widow says. “I feel resolved: If he can be a scientist, we can celebrate it.”

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