What is restorative justice? When a friend asked me this the other day I was unsurprised by the question for a few reasons. First, violent offenders like my friend and I are rarely given anything but the harshest sentences. Second, when restorative justice is used in a case, it is usually in conjunction with low level juvenile offenders. Third, restorative justice is uncommon in our overly punitive society because it's seen as a liberal, social welfare experiment that coddles criminals. Restorative justice is the idea that the legal system can strike a balance between punishing the criminal act while maintaining an individual's ties to his or her community. It works to repair an offender's relationship with the victim by opening a line of communication, educating the involved parties about each other's point of view, and stressing the need to resolve the problem.
There is more to punishment than the element of retribution, but it seems the U.S. has forgotten this. Rather than seek a way to fix whatever contributed to the criminal act the system punishes as harshly as it can and does little to break the cycle of incarceration once it begins. Anything less than a long prison term is thought of as unacceptable -- criminal even. This mode of thought is so embedded in our culture that if a child commits violent crime he or she is tried as an adult in most states, despite the fact a person's mind is not fully developed until the age of twenty-one.
The senselessness of trying juveniles as adults underlines the core problem within the criminal justice system. Restorative justice attempts to offset this imbalance rather than throw away a child's potential to fulfill an unthinking need to punish criminals. It's an uphill battle. Only in the last decade has the U.S. Supreme Court decided death and natural life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment. How long will it take them to determine a child is a child and should not be punished as an adult? How long will it take the system to figure out "if you can't communicate, you can't solve problems?"
Restorative justice will never have a place in our society as long as talionic prison terms are considered acceptable punishment for juvenile offenders. So long as there is inconsistent use and knowledge of restorative justice methodology, recidivism rates will continue to rise with the growth of the prison population, and the school to prison pipeline will become a raging river.
If there is to be a transition from a strictly punitive system to one that relies on educational programs that teach kids to give back to the community, it must begin in the courtroom. Attorneys, prosecutors, and judges have to consider that this "offender" is a child with a story. Restorative justice requires court officials to care about the impact they have on future generations, rather than being too willing to discard the youth of America. However, the more difficult proposition, and by far the one that matters the most, is convincing the public they should not trade their children for what can only be assumed are safer streets.