We need a better way, especially in our criminal justice system. That’s clear.
In September 2018 Rachael Rollins was elected District Attorney of Suffolk County. Suffolk County encompasses Boston, MA as well as a handful of neighboring communities. One of her campaign promises was, that as District Attorney, she would no longer prosecute certain offenses such as shoplifting. When I first heard this I wondered how a merchant in Boston would feel. The way the Boston media outlets reported the news suggested that it would be open season to steal. I know, based on this analysis, I wouldn’t have wanted to have a business in the city. Yet the media was wrong. She wasn’t saying there would be no justice, rather that there was a better way than criminal prosecution. And that alternative is Restorative Justice. Yet what does that mean.
Let’s create a hypothetical situation. A eighteen year old man is out with friends. They are driving around, drinking in their car. They stop. Apparently there is some TikTok or other such game that involves throwing yourself into a fence, crashing through it. He does it to my fence, damaging it. He jumps back in the car, takes off. I hear the crash, call the police. They come, take a report, talk to the neighbors. One neighbor has a Ring doorbell. The video clearly shows the young man in question and the vehicle registration information. The police follow up, arrest him as well as the driver of the car as being an accomplice. They are both charged with vandalism.
So what happens next in a “traditional” criminal justice model? Here in Massachusetts the arrests would be referred to the District Attorney for prosecution. There would be a least one court hearing, maybe more. Both young men would have the expense of hiring attorneys to represent them. There could be a trial, although the most likely outcome would be a plea bargain, an admission of guilt in exchange for a lighter sentence. Both young men now have criminal records. It’s likely, this being a low level crime, that the convictions won’t impact their futures. Yet perhaps it will. If our young man, having just graduated from high school, had been accepted to one of our military academies, could this conviction impact his attending? Would the offer be withdrawn?
In parallel, there is the impact to me, the homeowner. I have a broken fence that needs repair. I get an estimate, $1100. I contact my insurance company. They remind me of my deductible of $1000. I decline to file a claim, believing that their payment of $100 is just not worth it if it leads to an increase in my future premiums. I’ve also spent time to talk to the police again, to discuss the case with the District Attorney, and gone and sat waiting in a courthouse in case my testimony is needed. So ask, where is the justice in this? I’m out $1100 and a lot of time. Two young men have criminal records because of a youthful indiscretion, a prank. The alternative? Let’s consider the path alternative justice would follow.
Instead of referring the case to the District Attorney, they police talk to local restorative justice advocate (RJA – this is my acronym, for the case of brevity in this article, the actual name/role is likely different). Both young men have an incentive to cooperate with the process, there is still a possible criminal conviction if they do not. The RJA talks to me, asks what I need, what outcome I think is fair. An apology would be a good start. So would someone paying for my fence repair. And so it goes from there, a negotiation. A meeting follows where I hear an apology. They agree to pay for the repair. The RJA also suggest that they do community service as a reminder of their indisgression.
So compare the two outcomes. In the first, I’m screwed twice (three times?). A broken fence. Lost time. Out $1100. They have criminal records. Is there any justice in this? Is punishment alone really justice? In the second case I’m made whole. Our two young men have been held accountable, facing me to apologize as well as the time for the community service and the hours they’ll work to earn the money to pay me.
Traditional justice creates justice for none. Restorative justice made the world, at least my world, a little better.
So let’s get back to Rachael Rollins and her experience as Suffolk County District Attorney (please note, it’s a job she no longer holds – Joe Biden appointed her to be the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts). It turns out her plan, her focus worked. A study was done comparing recidivism, the commission of a subsequent crime, comparing people whose cases were handled via traditional prosecution versus through a restorative justice approach. Restorative justice. This is from the study: “Compared to those who are prosecuted, for the two years after the arraignment of a case, non-prosecution reduced the rates at which people were subsequently issued any new criminal complaints (58 percent), charged with violent offenses (64 percent), charged with disorderly conduct or property offenses (91 percent), charged with motor vehicle offenses (63 percent), or otherwise marked with criminal records (69 percent).” These numbers are well beyond being “statistically significant”. They are proof. Restorative justice works, not only for the people involved initially, but for all of us by reducing future crime.
And please consider that restorative justice is also, in many cases, racial and economic justice. When a poor kid commits a crime they’ll likely be assigned an overworked public defender who mostly is worried about clearing cases which leads to the most likely outcome: a plea bargain with an attached criminal record. An upper-middle class kid commits the same crime? Mom and dad spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer who works the system and makes it all just go away.
You choose. I know what my choice is.