Vermont Court Diversion Video One of Three Finalists in Media for a Just Society’s “Web” Category

Vermont has implemented an innovative Court Diversion Program based on Restorative Justice Principles for adult and juvenile offenders ( The program has, at its foundation, statutory support ( that directs the Attorney General’s office to develop and administer diversion programs across all counties in the state. The statute provides clear direction for the structure of the programs, but also allows flexibility for the counties to design processes that work best in their particular context.

The mission of the Vermont Court Diversion Program is “to engage community members in responding to the needs of crime victims, the community, and those who violated the law, holding the latter accountable in a manner that promotes responsible behavior.” Individuals who have been charged with a crime may be considered by the state’s attorney for participation in a Court Diversion Program. Participation is strictly voluntary and requires that the individual accept responsibility for the charges.
So far, the results of this diversion program look promising. According to the Vermont Court Diversion web site, over 84% of successful Diversion participants from 2007-2009 were not charged with another crime up to two years after completing Diversion.
For more detailed information on the Vermont Court Diversion Program, take a look at their fantastic video at 52435346.

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What is the Proper Role of Forgiveness in Restorative Justice?

Is forgiveness an appropriate goal of restorative justice? What is the proper role of forgiveness in restorative justice?

The media has given restorative justice increased attention since the New York Times published the article, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in early January.

But some criticize the article and ensuing media attention as doing “a disservice…by dwelling on forgiveness as the apparent reason for restorative justice.” Ted Wachtel, President and Founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School, wrote on the Huffington Post, “Forgiveness is neither an expectation nor a goal of restorative justice. Forgiveness may be a by-product, but the notion that a crime victim should forgive an offender imposes unrealistic and potentially hurtful demands on a crime victim.”

The article goes on to list the many benefits of restorative justice that typical court systems cannot provide: the opportunity to express feelings directly to an offender, ask questions such as “why me?”, get an apology, and determine restitution; reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; decreased rates of re-offending; and lower costs. With all these recognized benefits of restorative justice, Wachtel asserts we should not focus on the “not-always attainable and sometimes detrimental expectation of forgiveness,” but rather on the many ways the restorative justice does help victims of crime that are not “predicated on the victim forgiving the offender.”

In a comment to Wachtel’s article, Sujatha Baliga, the restorative justice practitioner and attorney featured in the New York Times article, responded to the question of forgiveness’ role in restorative justice:

“My unequivocal answer is that forgiveness is not necessary for participation in restorative processes, nor should it be expected as an outcome. Forgiveness happened to exist in the Grosmaire/McBride case — and actually predated the restorative community conference. I believe forgiveness reigned so large in the Times piece because it was bedrock of this journey for the Grosmaires, the McBrides, and for Conor. To that end, the reporter did an excellent job of telling the stories of the people involved in this case. What we learn from this is that the story-by-story coverage always paints a partial picture of the field. My hope is for future media coverage of a story that doesn’t focus on forgiveness — for example, where the interaction was more transactional yet still produced the many other positive outcomes Ted summarizes in his article. In short, we mustn’t set the bar at forgiveness. I’ve facilitated many conferences where there was no forgiveness, yet everyone was satisfied with the process and moved forward in a positive way. Moreover, forgiveness is not a viable policy alternative to criminal adjudication/incarceration, but restorative justice is.” She further discussed her perspective on the topic here in a webinar with Howard Zehr.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Ted Wachtel’s full blog post is available here. The original New York Times article is available here.



Posted in Blogs, Criminal Justice | 1 Comment

The Time is Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Georgia

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice

In his annual State of the State address this January, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal asked the state legislature to spend $5 million on “community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low risk offenders.” (Georgia Governor: $5 Million for New Juvenile Diversions.  At the same time, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles was talking to the legislature about the “transformation” that would be required for his department to be successful in the coming years.  (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Prepares for Transformation.  Interestingly, both Deal and Niles recognize the need to engage the communities where juvenile offenders reside differently to effect change in the culture of Georgia’s juvenile justice system.

The $5 million requested by Deal would help establish and support community diversion programs for low-risk offenders.  At the same time, he is asking for an additional $4.8 million to open the new Rockdale Youth Detention Center and a new 30 bed Youth Development Campus to house the most aggressive youth. Niles is requesting resources to manage the older, more violent offenders Juvenile Justice employees are facing and to retain employees in a system suffering from 50% turnover, low pay and difficult working conditions. From the sounds of it, the two are headed down a mutually supportive road.

A few Georgia counties are well prepared to take advantage of Deal’s proposed funding opportunity. Newton County, for example, runs an Evening Reporting Center, an alternative to detention for some youth. Participants, about 120 per year, are provided dinner, recreational opportunities, and life skills programs. Newton County’s Balanced and Restorative Justice program runs restorative justice meetings about twice per month where victims, offenders, and members of the community can come together to discuss the offense, and the impact on the victim and the community. Agreed upon sanctions must be completed within 90 days, and progress is checked monthly. Other counties, however, would be starting from scratch to build diversion programs from the ground up.

The momentum for juvenile justice reform in Georgia right now represents opportunity for young people in the system and the communities in which they live.  What would happen if legislators, Juvenile Justice leaders, representatives from working diversion programs, and interested parties from counties without existing diversion programs worked together to take advantage of this opportunity? Couldn’t they, the people closest to the challenges, best figure out how to apply the available resources to make things better?

I’d like to think so. I’d like to see them try it. What about you?

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Victim Offender Mediation Overview

A very helpful primer on victim-offender mediation. Let us know what you think!

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Alternative Dispute Resolution in Turkey Lecture to be Held at Georgia State University

The Urban Fellows program will host a lecture about the development of Alternative Dispute Resolution in Turkey on February 6, 2013 at the Georgia State University College of Law.  The lecture will be given by Prof. Dr. Feridun Yenisey from Bahcesehir University’s Law School in Istanbul, Turkey. Dr. Yenisey is a renowned scholar and expert in criminal and human rights law.

The United Nations Development Programme has been instrumental in funding ADR, including victim-offender mediation, in an effort to increase the access to justice in Turkey. A 2009 UNDP newsletter featured interviews with dispute resolution practitioners and the role mediation can play in Turkey’s criminal justice system.

Where: Georgia State University College of Law, Room 675

When: 12-1 pm





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Questions Raised by the Recent New York Times Article on Restorative Justice

Last week, I posted a link to the New York Times account of forgiveness and restorative justice between the parents of a murdered daughter and the boyfriend who killed her. The story raises some interesting questions posed by law professor and author, Cynthia Alkon, in her blog post “Restorative Justice for Murder?

Alkon points out that the pre-trial restorative justice process described in the New York Times article is highly unusual in instances of murder here in the United States. Moreover, the more commonly used post-conviction restorative justice processes normally do not permit an offender’s participation to benefit the offender in post-conviction proceedings. To illustrate how the post-conviction restorative justice process typically works, Alkon provides an example of another very moving story about forgiveness and restorative justice between a mother and her three-year old’s murderer years after the conviction.

Alkon then raises the following important questions regarding the role of restorative justice in our criminal justice system:

Should victims determine the ultimate sentence? If victims are permitted to determine outcomes, will similarly situated defendants be treated differently? Should we be concerned about that?

Should an offender who is remorseful and sorry for their actions be rewarded? If so, what are the implications for defendants who contest their guilt and go to trial? Should they be more heavily penalized?

What is the role of restorative justice for offenders who, unlike the families described in the New York Times article, are not white and middle class and may not have the resources to find out about and advocate for an alternative process?

I invite your reflections on these thought-provoking questions.

Cynthia Alkon’s full blog post is available here. The original New York Times article is available here.


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Django Unchained and Restorative Justice

This post was authored by Mary Adkins and first appeared in the Life of the Law blog

Here’s something to reconcile: how much I (you?) loved Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds because they are moral revenge fantasies, and how much you believe in the kind of restorative justice principles touted in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month.

I saw Django this weekend and while I shielded my eyes from the killing of slaves, I opened them wide for the villain-slaughtering scenes in the last half hour of the film. I watched Django (Jamie Foxx) shoot a man in the kneecaps, watched the man writhe on the ground. I watched him shoot another in the groin, all without looking away. And I enjoyed it.

Because when bad guys get hurt, I like it. We all do to some extent. Even if it’s just the retaliation of one who had to focus on her hazy shoes for several minutes earlier, gripping her armrest as a man was ripped apart by a dog on screen. The perpetrators were guys I was glad to see die.

So when I got home and sat down at my computer to find the article on restorative justice still open so I could write about it in a laudatory way, I paused.

Why hello, hypocrite.

The debate over the purpose of criminal justice invokes theories of punishment. Possible answers to the question “why incarcerate (or punish)?” are both forward-looking and backward-looking. Forward-looking theories are rehabilitation (get them to where they’re not committing crimes), deterrence (prevent other people from committing crimes), and incapacitation (remove the bad guy from the streets, and there’s one fewer bad guy on the streets). Then there is the backward-looking theory of retribution (you get what you deserve).

Restorative justice discards these categorical approaches in order to focus on the specific situation at hand. The goal is to “repair the harm caused by the crime,” which hinges on relationships between people: victim and offender, offender and community. The set of possible solutions is larger, and communication is critical to identifying the optimal one. A restorative justice process may end in the offender taking care of the victim’s garden forever. Or receiving a five-year sentence instead of fifteen. Are these alternative outcomes “deserved?” Who knows. Are they deterring? Unlikely. Are they superior? It depends on your view of justice.

In Who’s In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, Michael Gazzaniga discusses a study in which people who’d labeled themselves as endorsing different theories of justice were asked to allocate punishments. Regardless of whether they put themselves in a forward-looking category, nearly everyone (97%) acted retributively.

“The reasons people give for their punishments… do not match what they do. They endorse utilitarian policies in the abstract but invoke retributivist ones in practice.”

This suggests that we want to be forward-looking but we’re not. Perhaps Tarantino’s revenge fantasies are so powerful because of the vindictiveness that lies in us even as outside the cinema we pretend it isn’t so, because we hope it isn’t so.

In his review of Django, Samuel Sattin at Salon compares it to his experience watching Inglourious Basterds: “It was more like a video game in the experiential sense, an exercise in schadenfreude. Something as simple as someone giving you a joystick and saying, ‘Hey, young American Jew, you know those Nazis that sent bubbe and zayde to the ovens? As opposed to playing out that story again, why don’t spend a couple hours blowing the heads off the fuckers who were responsible. It’ll be good for you.’”

What’s probably good for us is to be reminded that our vengeful impulses are a large reason why restorative justice is such an attractive concept. To the extent that we want our more reasonable, forward-looking values to govern our behavior, it wins, because one thing it’s very much not is vengeful. Whether it “works” is a question being asked all over the globe and brings us back around to the same issue of what that means.

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Is Restorative Justice Apprpriate in Domestic Violence Cases?

Jill Filipovic recently wrote an article for that cautioned against using against Restorative Justice in domestic violence situations. It reads:

“Restorative justice is often a very good way to deal with crime, and it’s a method that any criminal justice system could benefit from using. But it’s not appropriate in every case – and it’s especially troubling to see it used in domestic violence cases.

Thanks to a long feature in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, the concept of restorative justice is getting some much-needed attention. The practise is centered on the idea that justice should involve restoration and healing, instead of simply punishment.

The US has the largest prison system in the world, and we institute some of the harshest and longest punishments. Rather than seeing crime as a wrong committed against the state, the restorative justice model positions crime as an act committed against an individual and a community. Instead of simply meting out a punishment for the crime, the restorative justice model works with the victim, the community and the perpetrator to assess the damage done and come to an agreement on how the victim and community can be made whole.

It’s not a widely-used process, but it’s a good one. The victim’s needs are centered; the perpetrator doesn’t get the vindication of feeling victimized and there’s an accountability aspect and a personalization of the crime that seems to lead to lower recidivism rates. It would be wonderful to see restorative justice used more widely in addressing non-violent crime.

But violent crime – and, particularly, intimate partner violence – is another story. While it’s certainly not impossible to use a restorative justice model for those crimes, it’s trickier territory.

Intimate partner violence is often “forgiven” by the victim, and whitewashed by the community, especially if the perpetrator is regarded as a “good guy”. Domestic abusers tend to be serially violent toward their partners, tend to escalate their assaults and tend to be manipulative. While most people profess disgust at domestic violence, in reality, abuse victims are often pressured to work on the relationship or told they must have done something to provoke the abuse.

Outsiders and even loved ones see the violence as a personal problem, not a crime. And domestic abuse is complicated by the fact that the victim often loves the perpetrator, often feels a sense of loyalty toward him, and is easily persuaded that he is indeed a good guy who just made a mistake, or has an anger problem, or simply loves her too much.

Restorative justice, like anything else, operates in an imperfect society and is carried out by imperfect actors. A community’s own ideas about a crime like domestic violence will naturally influence the process.

The Times story illustrates this point well. The victim, a young woman named Ann Grosmaire, was shot in the head by her boyfriend Conor McBride, while she was on her knees begging for her life. Conor had hit her several times before finally killing her. According to McBride’s version of events – we don’t have Grosmaire’s, because she’s dead – the two had been fighting for an extended period, and he got out the gun to either use on himself or to scare her. But he ended up shooting her.

He left her for dead, drove around for a while, and then turned himself into police. It turned out she wasn’t dead, and Ann was on life support for a while before her parents decided there was no hope and took her off the machines. But before she died, her father – a religious Catholic – claims he heard her voice speak to him, asking him to forgive McBride. The Grosmaires went on a journey to try to repair the damage to their family, and to forgive McBride, while also seeking justice. To do that, they convinced the Florida prosecutor assigned to the case to allow them to use some restorative justice models in deciding a sentence.

The Grosmaires sat down with McBride, his family, a restorative justice lawyer, the prosecutor and a visual representation of Ann. Each party spoke about how the crime affected them, and about Ann. Conor McBride had to tell the story of exactly how he killed her, and had to hear her parents explain the soul-crushing anguish they felt as a result of his actions. And then, the group discussed what they thought should be the appropriate punishment.

The Grosmaires considered that somewhere between 10 and 15 years seemed fair. The prosecutor gave Conor 20. All in all, it seems like a process the parties were pleased with, which even an outsider could say seems fair.

It’s a redemptive and inspirational story. Like many readers, I was impressed with the Grosmaires’ goodness and generosity, and with restorative justice attorney Sujatha Baliga’s clear-mindedness in pursuing this exceptional path to finding personal peace and seeking justice through her work.

But what would have happened if this model weren’t used in a murder, but in a domestic assault?

We know that Ann’s parents think Conor is a “good guy” – they think that even after he killed their daughter. We know they care about him and wanted the relationship between him and Ann to work out. We know they believe strongly in forgiveness and transcendence.

Restorative justice is centered on a victim’s needs, without turning perpetrators into pariahs. That’s good and important. But in a society that sees domestic violence as an interpersonal dispute, and in a community and family that sees an abuser as a good guy and an abusive relationship as one worth fixing, does a victim like Ann stand a chance at getting justice?

Does she have the support to get what she really needs – which is to get away from her abuser, and to have her community and her society take seriously acts of violence against her?

I don’t think so: not in the situation the Times article illustrated, and not in many domestic violence cases. As someone who believes in prison reform, social justice and human rights, I believe deeply and strongly that people are capable of radical, transformative change. I believe restorative justice can, in many circumstances, help to set that kind of change in motion.

But radical, transformative change can’t come on the backs of victims of violence; it can’t come at the expense of their safety or their mental health or their sense of security in their own communities. The radical, transformative change that makes a formerly violent person – especially a person who was repeatedly violent toward someone they claimed to love – nonviolent is a long process that requires accountability from the perpetrator and an understanding that some things may be unforgivable, and that true change does not hinge on or require forgiveness from others.

Transformative change is more than an apology, and it’s more than taking steps to repair the damage done. It’s a recognition that some damage is irreparable, that one must be be contrite even if forgiveness never comes, and that one’s change is only real so long as one makes it so for the rest of one’s days.

That’s a tall order. In some ways, jail is easier.

If you steal someone’s bike or sell drugs on someone’s block, there are ways to repay them for your offense. Certainly, feelings of safety and security are violated, but the damage is usually fixable. But if you take the most intimate of all relationships and you pervert love into violence, you damage a person’s physical body in addition to their sense of trust and their right to believe that love shouldn’t come with a fist to the face.

When the stakes are that high, the victim’s needs and a bright-line rule that intimate partner violence is socially unacceptable must be prioritized. A community’s vision of domestic violence in a society where domestic violence already isn’t taken seriously enough can undermine that.

Restorative justice should be applied more widely and supported more broadly; and in a more evolved society, I’d love to see it applied to domestic violence. But we don’t live in that society quite yet. And constructing intimate violence as something not only forgivable, but as something that should be forgiven, isn’t radical; it’s a common belief.

Until that changes, I don’t trust community-based justice for domestic violence victims – any more than I trust an individual abuser.”

How much do gender, racial, and wealth inequalities impact restorative justice in practice? Should Restorative Justice be off-limits for some crimes?

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Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

Conor McBride, who was convicted of shooting his girlfriend of three years when they were both 19.

Conor McBride, who was convicted of shooting his girlfriend of three years when they were both 19.

The New York Times recently published a very moving account of two families’ journey to forgiveness and restorative justice after a tragic murder. Conor McBride remorsefully turned himself in after shooting his girlfriend, Ann Grosmaire, in the midst of a fight. The tragic death of a 19 year old daughter lead the families of Ann and Conor to seek restorative justice rather than a life sentence or the death penalty.

Excerpts from the article written by Paul Tullis:

That night, Andy Grosmaire, Ann’s father, stood beside his daughter’s bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did “wondrous things,” Ann would not survive her injuries. Ann’s mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, “just listening,” he says, “for that first word that may come out.”

Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate. In this country, restorative justice takes a number of forms, but perhaps the most prominent is restorative-justice diversion. There are not many of these programs — a few exist on the margins of the justice system in communities like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. — but, according to a University of Pennsylvania study in 2007, they have been effective at reducing recidivism. Typically, a facilitator meets separately with the accused and the victim, and if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of the adversarial legal system and into a parallel restorative-justice process. All parties — the offender, victim, facilitator and law enforcement — come together in a forum sometimes called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks, one at a time and without interruption, about the crime and its effects, and the participants come to a consensus about how to repair the harm done.

The methods are mostly applied in less serious crimes, like property offenses in which the wrong can be clearly righted — stolen property returned, vandalized material replaced. The processes are designed to be flexible enough to handle violent crime like assault, but they are rarely used in those situations. And no one I spoke to had ever heard of restorative justice applied for anything as serious as murder.

The Grosmaires had learned about restorative justice from Allison DeFoor, an Episcopal priest who works as a chaplain in the Florida prison system (and before that worked as a sheriff, public defender, prosecutor and judge). Andy, who is studying to become a deacon, heard about DeFoor from a church friend and turned to him for guidance. When Andy told DeFoor that he wanted to help the accused, DeFoor suggested he look into restorative justice. “The problem,” DeFoor says, “was the whole system was not designed to do any of what the Grosmaires were wanting.” He considered restorative justice — of any kind, much less for murder — impossible in a law-and-order state. “We are nowhere near ready for this in Florida right now,” DeFoor told me. “Most people would go, ‘Huh?’ And most conservatives would go, ‘Ew.’ ” But as a man of the cloth, he said he believed there was always hope. He suggested the families “find the national expert on restorative justice and hire him.”

Read the entire story here.



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Howard Zehr shifts to leading role in new Restorative Justice Institute

Howard Zehr, widely known as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” will step aside from his teaching role at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) after the spring 2013 semester and begin co-leading the newly established Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.

The leaders of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) announced the founding of the Zehr Institute at the end of the fall 2012 semester, after persuading Zehr to let the institute carry his name. They also asked Zehr to remain a faculty member in a non-teaching role with the title Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice.

Zehr has taught restorative justice at CJP since 1996. He also served as CJP’s co-director from 2001 to 2007.

Zehr, who shies away from the word “retirement,” says he always planned to stop teaching before he lost his edge, and he wants to make space for others to step in. “Sometimes the only way you can do that,” he says, “is to get out of the way.”

The Zehr Institute will spread knowledge about restorative justice and be a resource to practitioners, while facilitating conversations and cultivating connections through activities like conferences and webinars, according to CJP executive director Lynn Roth. The institute will be co-directed by Zehr and Carl Stauffer, assistant professor of development and justice studies at CJP.

Zehr and Stauffer say they intend for the institute to offer space to explore “frontier” topics, like the intersection of the arts and peacebuilding, and the ways that trauma and restorative justice are connected. They plan for it to tap the expertise of practitioners who aren’t scholars, but have much to offer.

And though the institute will not focus on academia, Stauffer believes it will benefit graduate students by growing a program in which students are not only taught the skills of restorative justice but are trained to see and respond to larger, systemic issues.

“We want to graduate students who’ve studied restorative justice who could run a circle [process] or victim-offender conferencing or a family group conference,” says Stauffer. “At the same time we want them to apply their education to a whole system, so that they could walk into a school and say, ‘What would a restorative justice system look like here?’”

Restorative justice, both Stauffer and Zehr believe, is not a just a social service, but a social movement.

As he moves to quarter-time employment at EMU, Zehr is looking forward to a schedule where he spends less time in meetings and more time with another passion of his, photography.

Alerted by email that Zehr is wrapping up his formal teaching career, former students have responded with appreciative messages.

Fadi El Hajjar, a 2006 master’s graduate of CJP who manages a United Nations project in Lebanon, praised Zehr for his “considerable contribution… to the peacebuilding world through teaching, training and writing.”

Mack Mulbah, a 2009 graduate working for Women Peace and Security Network, Africa, wrote to Zehr, “I am sure you will be missed in the classroom, but glad that your new journey will open more doors for further moving RJ [restorative justice] to another level for us practitioners.”

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