In 1999 I began to think in terms of “restorative justice in everyday life.”
Although an advocate of Real Justice restorative conferences, I felt it was unrealistic to expect that a single restorative intervention could change the behavior and mindset of the delinquent and high-risk teenagers in our own Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Academy schools and group homes.
These young people’s persistently impulsive behavior and drug and alcohol abuse did not seem likely to be curbed by just one restorative conference.
For me, that was the most important learning from the research funded by the National of Institute of Justice and conducted by our organization in the mid-1990s, when we evaluated police-led restorative conferences with juvenile offenders in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Individual conferences, by themselves, were not a magic pill to cure anti-social behavior.
However I was encouraged by the remark made by Terry O’Connell, the Australian police officer who developed the Real Justice model of conferencing.
When he first visited one of our schools in 1995, he said, “You are running a conference all day long.”
Although we had not previously used the term “restorative justice” to describe our CSF Buxmont program activities, we came to realize that our program environment was characterized by the everyday use of a wide range of informal and formal restorative practices.
So we decided to evaluate what researcher Paul McCold defined as a “restorative milieu,” or what we would later call a “restorative community.”
McCold had been the principal investigator for our Bethlehem police conferencing experiment.
He additionally carried out three evaluations of the CSF Buxmont programs involving nearly 4000 young people over a period of seven years, from 1999 to 2006.
He wanted to see whether the regular use of restorative practices in the daily life of the delinquent and at-risk youth in our schools and group homes had a significant effect on their behavior.
Yes, it did.
It had a significant positive effect on behavior in all three evaluations and in all eight of the CSF Buxmont schools.
After spending time in a restorative milieu, CSF and Buxmont students demonstrated improvements in both pro-social attitudes and behavior, including more than a fifty percent reduction in criminal offending.
This came as quite a surprise because McCold had warned us that in his earlier investigations of 50 youth-serving programs in New York State, he could not find any program that made a measurable difference.
Thanks to McCold’s research, we now knew we were on to something important and we were quite excited.
We realized that the term “restorative justice” should include not just formal processes like conferencing but a variety of informal responses.
I began to think in terms of a “restorative practices continuum.”
On the far left of the continuum is a simple affective response in which the wronged
person lets the offender know how he or she feels about the incident.
Moving from the left end of the continuum to the right, restorative interventions become increasingly formal, involve more people, more planning, more time and more structure.
For example, in our Community Service Foundation programs a staff person might say to a young person, “You really hurt my feelings when you curse at me.
And it surprises me, because I don’t think you want to hurt anyone on purpose.”
And that may be a sufficient intervention to influence a young person’s behavior at that time.
If a similar behavior happens again, we might repeat the response or try a different restorative intervention, perhaps asking, “How do you think Mark felt when you cursed at him?” and then waiting patiently for an answer.
These affective statements or questions are the most basic restorative interventions.
In the middle of the continuum is a small impromptu conference.
I remember such an impromptu conference involving a 14-year-old boy who was on probation and who lived with his grandmother.
He had gone to a cousin’s house on Christmas eve without letting his grandmother know and did not come back until the next morning, just barely in time for them to catch a bus to her sister’s house for Christmas dinner.
We encouraged his grandmother to talk about how that incident had affected her and how worried she was about her grandson.
The boy was surprised by how deeply his behavior had affected his grandmother.
He apologized sincerely and assured her that he would not do anything like that again.
Near the far right of the continuum is the group or a circle process, which is less
structured than the formal conference.
It is often spontaneous and does not require the elaborate preparation expected of a formal conference.
For instance, when an incident occurs in which the culprits are not known or there are many people responsible for the problem, a circle allows people to talk about how the adverse behavior affects them and to ask individuals to identify their part in the problem.
These kinds of circle discussions are usually very impactful and result in a raised consciousness among participants about how their behavior impacts others and encourages meaningful changes in behavior.
For example, in one of our schools there were several thefts of personal valuables.
The whole school community participated in a circle in which victims and their friends talked about how the thefts made them feel, how it poisoned the school atmosphere for them and how they feared further thefts.
After the circle the thefts stopped.
Does it always work that way?
Of course not.
But it’s better than doing nothing because it helps people deal with their feelings — an opportunity for them to share what’s on their mind with others who care.
We realize that it’s often impossible to know “who done it?” but it’s useful if the culprits get to learn how their behavior affects others.
Often they feel shame because they have friends who know they did the thefts.
Feelings resonate through conversation.
These restorative interventions, from informal to formal, usually employ one or more of
what we call the “restorative questions.”
We can create informal restorative interventions simply by asking offenders these questions that are derived from the scripted Real Justice conference.
“What were you thinking of at the time?”
“Who do you think has been affected?”
“In what way?” “
“What can you do to make things right?”
Or you can ask questions of those who have been affected by the behavior, either as a direct victim or by someone who cares about the victim.
“What did you think when you realized what had happened?”
“What impact has this incident had on you and others?”
“What has been the hardest thing for you?”
“What do you think needs to happen to make things right?”
Whenever possible, we provide those who have been affected with an opportunity to express their feelings.
We also realized that we would be more effective if we employed restorative processes both reactively and proactively.
To clarify that distinction, we now use the term “restorative justice” to describe only when we respond to wrongdoing and conflict – a subset of restorative practices.
In contrast, we use the term “restorative practices” to describe not only responses, but also proactive strategies of prevention — such as the extensive use of circles in school classrooms aimed at developing relationships and creating a sense of community among young people and staff — often called social capital.
Social capital is defined as the connections among individuals, and the trust, mutual understanding, shared values and behaviors that bind us together and make cooperative action possible.
Our CSF Buxmont staff took kids on lots of field trips with few behavior problems because they proactively held circles to discuss, “What are the possible problems that could happen on this trip and what are you personally willing to do to help avoid them?”
When you have that kind of proactive conversation you have shared the potential problem with those who can best do something about it — and students will almost always rise to the occasion and take responsibility for the commitments they make.
When a wrong or conflict arises, we can draw upon that social capital for support and cooperation in resolving the issue.
The cumulative result of honest and heartfelt conversation is far more productive than lecturing, scolding, threatening or handing out detentions, suspensions and expulsions.
We began to ask ourselves, “If these strategies work so well in a restorative community for delinquent and at-risk kids, what would happen if public schools became restorative communities.”
So we decided to expand our efforts beyond youth justice.
Another reason we turned toward working with schools was because we were discouraged by the half-hearted interest shown by the criminal justice system.
We were directly involved with several evaluations of police-led restorative conferences in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Indiana.
Although initially encouraged by the enthusiasm of the participating police officers, we were dismayed by how soon after the research ended that police leadership discontinued the practices.
I trusted that we would have greater success bringing restorative practices to schools than to criminal justice because educators could really make good use of our help.
Criminal justice professionals of all kinds — not only cops, but probation officers, prosecutors, prison staff — none are the least bit surprised by the many badly behaved people they encounter in their jobs.
In fact, the more badly behaved people, the more job security.
On the other hand, school teachers and administrators are surprised by how many badly behaved students they encounter on a daily basis.
Because we know how to help them change that behavior, we proposed a new reality in learning.
With great expectations we approached public schools offering “Safer Saner Schools.”