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Rather than punish, restorative justice offers chance to heal

Posted July 14, 2013, at 5:10 p.m.

“All human beings have the capacity to learn, grow and change.”

This is just one of the many evidence-based beliefs of restorative justice I recently learned about by becoming a volunteer mentor for Restorative Justice Project of Midcoast Maine. The training I participated in has led me to reflect deeply on the important role of community in changing the “lock-up and punish” model of our western judicial system, which has produced a growing and recidivist criminal class.

This revolving door has served to keep our prisons full to overflowing and requires a huge cash flow to maintain. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Our prisons, places of considerable violence, do little to help offenders re-enter society.

Restorative justice, through family and community participation, is demonstrating there is a better way. Through restorative justice programs, victims and offenders, as well as the community, are given an opportunity to heal.

This model is a prescription that can help mend our limping judicial system. The restorative justice model has been integrated into the juvenile justice systems of several countries and states, from New Zealand and Canada to California and Colorado.

The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, formed in 2005, works with offenders in Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and Washington counties to help them understand the magnitude of their offenses and learn from them. A skeleton staff in the Belfast office oversees the activities of dozens of volunteer mentors and several programs.

RJP’s mission, according to its website, is to promote “fundamental change in the justice system and schools. Our responses to crime and wrongdoing seek renewal and safety for the community, support and healing for victims, and accountability and reintegration of the offender.”

One of the central aspects of RJP, Community Resolution Conferencing, brings together the victim, offender, mentor, and community participants with facilitators to help all understand what has happened. In this setting, victims talk about the effect of the offense, and offenders accept responsibility for their actions.

After an offender burglarizes a home, for example, the victim describes how the event affected him or her and suggests restitution. The offender is held accountable for the harm caused and agrees to pay back the victim. A volunteer mentor helps to make sure this reparative agreement is carried out, meeting weekly with the offender for an average of six months.

The emphasis on restitution over punishment provides the best outcome for all stakeholders.

Through this program, according to RJP, 90 percent of juvenile offender participants between 2005 and 2011 successfully completed their agreements. Notably, their six-month recidivism rate was 47 percent lower than the recidivism rate for state-supervised offenders, according to RJP’s 2011 recidivism report.

But restorative justice isn’t only for juveniles in legal trouble. RJP’s Restorative School Practices of Maine program partners with schools to introduce restorative justice into everyday discipline. Initial data from the schools that have partnered with RJP show detentions were reduced by 58 percent and suspensions by 63 percent.

RJP also brings restorative justice to Maine through its work with the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, which houses up to 60 adult males classified as minimum security. The center’s goal is to assist the residents as they prepare to rejoin their communities through a variety of educational activities, including a restorative justice class.

After completing this six-week course, residents are matched with RJP volunteer mentors who provide crucial support in the reintegration effort. These residents, when matched with RJP mentors, develop supportive relationships and a new connection to their communities. They realize others are invested in their success.

It is clear that there is a community-based, restorative justice solution to a large number of criminal cases that has lasting benefits for society. We invite all to learn about our program and reflect on the true meaning of justice by visiting www.rjpmidcoast.org, emailing info@rjpmidcoast.org or calling 338-2742.

Arthur Barry Adoff, of Bangor is the author of two crime novels.

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