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Restorative Justice What is it and how is it relevant to family work at our juvenile facilities?

By Marlyce Nuzum

Comments can be sent to mnuzum@hotmail.com

For more information, see Balanced and Restorative Justice Initiative in Michigan

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In January 1998, the Office of Juvenile Justice adopted Balanced and Restorative Justice as a philosophy and the framework for delinquency services throughout the state. Restorative justice is a different way of thinking about crime and justice. It provides a three-dimensional focus on meeting the needs of victims, offenders and communities and involving each in the justice process.

Partnering with families to address obligations and to repair relationships, which have been damaged in a variety of ways, fits well within the philosophy of Restorative Justice. The primary defining feature of restorative justice is its emphasis on repairing the harm caused by crime. Harm refers not only to physical injury or monetary loss, but also includes psychological consequences, damage to relationships and any other loss suffered as a result of the offense. Crime occurs within the context of relationships family, peers, school, co-workers, communities, etc. and justice is achieved through the reparation of each of those relationships. The desired goal is taking responsibility (includes actively working to repay for the harm done), expressing sadness and regret, committing not to repeat the harmful behavior and learning healthier ways to relate.

The three stakeholder groups in a restorative justice system are the victim, the offender and the community. The process should provide a framework that promotes the work of recovery and healing for all the stakeholders. The process belongs to the community and requires that community members be actively involved in the work of reparation and reconciliation.

Families are the first community an individual belongs to and the work of recovery and healing must include efforts of reparation and reconciliation at this level also. By drawing from the resources of the family, the unit itself will be strengthened. All the family members will have a greater investment in the well being of the family as a whole and, as a result, the safety of the larger community will also be enhanced. The family has a responsibility for the conditions that promote both harm and peace within its boundaries just as all other communities do.

The values of restorative justice are reflected in its goals of accountability, competency development and community safety. A strength based family work approach which places value on diversity and demonstrates respect in its interactions with all family members is most likely to achieve these same goals (accountability, competency development and safety) both within the family unit and the larger community. This requires that we, as juvenile justice professionals, stretch our traditional definitions of family and community to reflect the perspectives of the participants in the process. Many of our youth do not have "families" as traditionally defined, but do have an identified network of contacts, which fulfill family roles. The professional focus should be on creative problem solving and relationship building. This requires an enhanced understanding of the victim experience, conflict resolution / mediation skills, and the ability to identify, access and reinforce existing resources both internal and external. Currently there are a number of promising practices being implemented that adhere to the values of restorative justice and that lend themselves to the arena of family work in cases of juvenile delinquency.

Family group conferencing involves bringing together family members and their key supporters to discuss harms that have occurred and how they might be repaired. People are provided with the opportunity to express their feelings regarding the impact of harmful behaviors, to ask questions and to identify desired changes. All participants may contribute to the process and the desired end result is an agreement between participants which outlines both expectations and commitments. Family group conferencing provides for victim involvement, enhanced empathy on the part of the offender and strengthened connections to community support systems.

Parent/child or victim/offender mediation provides opportunities for family members to meet in a structured setting to discuss the impact of harmful behaviors. With the assistance of a trained mediator, the effects of harmful behavior can be safely discussed, questions asked and opportunities provided to develop mutually acceptable plans for reparation and reconciliation.

Keeping in mind our definition of family as a community, Judge Barry Stuart provides the defining value in partnering with the families of the youth in the care of the juvenile justice system:

"When citizens fail to assume responsibility for decisions affecting the community, community life will be characterized by the absence of a collective sense of caring, a lack of respect for diverse values and ultimately a lack of any sense of belonging. On the other hand, conflict, if resolved through a process that constructively engages the parties involved, can be a fundamental building ingredient in any relationship."

Whatever approach is utilized, the measure of the intervention is the degree of restoration or reparation achieved.

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