Controversies around restorative justice
Jan 24, 2012
....Restorative justice may be poised for a breakthrough into public awareness. It would be a boon for budget-cutting politicians and taxpayers if only the public could buy into it. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area it costs around $50,000 to run a juvenile offender through the justice system, not counting the cost of incarceration if there is to be any, versus about $4,500 for a restorative process that typically leaves the victim much more satisfied, the young person reintegrated into the community without even being charged with a crime and much less likely to reoffend, and many community members relieved and grateful. Multiply the criminal justice cost many times for adults locked away for years.
But the rub is, punishment is nowhere seen in this process—unless, when you have harmed someone, you consider listening to them express their pain to be punishment, rather than a chance to develop empathy for them, see yourself in a different light, and learn and change in whatever way you now perceive is needed. Some consider that process tougher even than receiving punishment. Others think it’s being “soft on crime.”
Can a justice movement not based on punishment grow fast enough to win at the ballot box, even in an über-liberal city? In September the New York Times noted that “Restorative justice has long had proponents in some corners of the criminal justice system, but it is now gaining prominence in an unlikely forum: the San Francisco district attorney’s race.” We go to press too soon to know the result.
Or will restorative justice appeal more to small-government and traditional-values conservatives? Some of its elements do appeal to the Right, others to reformist liberals, others to radicals, including prison abolitionists. Of course, there are also elements that each of these players may dislike or hate. And no one will resist it more than the prison-industrial complex and the politicians in its pockets.
How it is presented by the media will be critical, but perhaps not decisive: it is how well it works in practice, in those places innovative enough to fund it, that will likely be decisive.