Pierre R. Berastain
August 7, 2013
The first victim-offender dialogue in Massachusetts occurred in 2006, when Janet Connors met with two of the men who had murdered her son Joel. Until that point, the State had not allowed victims of crime to meet with those who had caused them harm. For Ms. Connors, that day marked the beginning of a transformative and restorative journey toward reconstituting the fragments in the aftermath of Joel’s murder. As she indicated to me in conversation, “Sitting it in that dialogue helped me feel that Joel’s life matter and the taking of it mattered. It also very much helped hear them acknowledge their accountability and ultimately apologize. I felt that was coming from their heart.” Ms. Connors told the men she would give them “half of her forgiveness.” The other half came with their commitment to lead different lives.
In May 2012, Ms. Connors and the two men sat side-by-side on a panel the Suffolk County district attorney’s office hosted to highlight the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program in the State. The men had been released from prison and were living up to the commitments they made to Ms. Connors. That reunion in the DA’s office, too, was a testament to the restorative process.
Today, restorative justice programs are implemented in different settings. In Charlestown High School, the Diploma Plus Program hired Ms. Connors to lead restorative circles with students. Last year, at the Restorative Justice Conference organized by the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative, Diploma Plus student Paul Holmes shared with an audience that, “Restorative justice has helped me become a better person, and it has helped me become a man. … I am noticing that I am more into everything. Restorative Justice has helped me become successful in everything I do.” Rather than simply suspending students, the restorative justice group at Charlestown High School seeks to bring together students who have violated rules and the larger community who promises to support and hold the youth accountable. In circle, community members as well as school administrators, teachers, and students engage in a dialogue about accountability for misbehavior. They also agree on commitments the students follow to make amends for their offenses.
In Lowell, Mass., Erin Freeborn founded Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion (JC RJD) aimed at reducing the rate of recidivism among youth. Working directly with the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, Ms. Freeborn, along with Ms. Connors, runs restorative justice circles with youth accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies. JC RJD receives referrals from the Juvenile Court, and Ms. Freeborn prepares participants on both sides so that they can participate in the circle process. At the end of each restorative meeting, the youth make agreements to the harmed party and the larger community. If they uphold their agreements and do not reoffend, their offenses does not remain on their permanent record.
These restorative programs are only some of the few taking place in Massachusetts, and while more programs continue to sprout throughout the state, no law has helped promote or endorse any of them. This legislative session, however, State Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) has introduced Senate Bill 52, An Act promoting restorative justice practices. If it goes into law, the act would not only give legislative recognition and legitimacy to restorative practices, but it would also establish a committee to assess programs in the state as well as make recommendations for future programming. This committee would bring together a range of representatives, from court-based programs to community members and academics in the field. For us in the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative, an organization that seeks to sustain the existing momentum and nourish a more cohesive restorative justice movement throughout the Commonwealth, the Act would further establish our efforts to bring restorative and transformative practices to a number of settings including schools, shelters, and prisons.
Via email, Senator Eldridge explains the inspiration for his bill:
When I was a State Representative, I attended a Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ) meeting in Concord, and listened to volunteers and police chiefs talk about the power of the program to make individuals accused of a crime understand the harm they imposed on a victim and how meaningful it was for the victims to reiterate that the emotions and trauma they felt were understood. Based on this experience, I worked with C4RJ to file this bill, creating a statewide local option for restorative justice in Massachusetts.
For Erin Freeborn, the Act is particularly important, as it would lend legitimacy to restorative practices as a method to reduce the rate of repeat offenders. “If Massachusetts could do this, it would be one of the pioneering states,” Ms. Freeborn said. A Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ) study found that C4RJ maintains satisfaction ratings around 90 percent among persons harmed in the cases referred. In addition, C4RJ found that just 16 percent of offenders referred to the program had been cited for additional offenses, compared with the 27 percent recidivism in the criminal justice system. Economically, too, restorative justice programs seem to fare better. According to a 2012 UMass-Boston study — “An Economic Analysis of Restorative Justice” — restorative justice programs in Massachusetts are nearly more than six times more cost-effective than traditional criminal justice methods.
While restorative justice is an emerging field in the law, only Boston University Law School offers a class entirely dedicated to restorative justice. Professor Tom Porter brings together divinity school and law students to explore both theological and legal frameworks of understanding restorative practices. The recognition of restorative practices in the law might also mean more institutions would begin implementing courses to train their students in restorative justice.