Posts Tagged Restorative justice

Restorative Justice Concludes Ugly Dalhousie Facebook Scandal

Published by EducationNews.org — Lessons learned, when Dalhousie University gave victims the opportunity to face their offenders and decide the consequences.

dalhousie

The nasty social-media scandal caused by male 4th year students at the Dalhousie University Dental School has resolved.  Victims, offenders and relevant faculty participated in a restorative-justice (RJ) process for five painful months.  In conclusion, they wrote a 9-page “Statement from the Restorative Justice Participants,” speaking together and as sub-groups.

This summation of lessons learned might well become a seminal document in the evolution of the growing Restoration movement.  It is not a report with specifics about who, what and when — however curious we are as to exactly what went on in those conference meetings.  Nor is it a how-to.  The RJ techniques are hardly mentioned.

Instead, they describe certain fruits of their labors — the mutual understandings reached, as well as some hard, life-changing experiences they never anticipated.  Twenty-nine of the students, nearly the whole 4th-year class, took part in the process, along with some faculty members and facilitators.

Briefly, the facts are these:  For three and a half years, thirteen men had an invitation-only Facebook page that functioned as a raunchy boys’ locker room.  Their postings seemed almost competitive in their vulgarity, indulging gluttonously in the bad-boy culture of manly, randy men.  Mind you, in person and daily life, they were close friends with their female colleagues in a tight culture of young adults, most of whom were far away from home.  But in cyberspace their discussions of those very women were repulsive.  Finally one offender outed the page to one of its victims.  The screen shots leaked to the press were media red meat.  Scandal erupted.  The public demanded vengeance.

Most universities would have expelled the men and washed their hands of it.

Dalhousie is a rare standard bearer for restorative justice in their handling of student misconduct.  The University offered the victims the opportunity to face their offenders, to be heard by them, and finally, to decide the consequences.

In the victims’ section of the Statement, the women explain their decision: RJ “provided us with a different sort of justice than the punitive type most of the loudest public voices seemed to want.  We were clear from the beginning, to the people who most needed to hear it, that we were not looking to have our classmates expelled as 13 angry men who understood no more than they did the day the posts were uncovered.”

Take-away #1:  Bad-boy culture is alive and well among us.

No one makes excuses for the hurt caused.  But according to the participants, one tough lesson was that on Facebook the offenders were just manifesting an oft-tolerated boys-will-be-boys culture.  Again, here are the victims:  “We are part of a generation in which inappropriate sexualization is more common and widespread than ever before, and we have become used to this.  …  For example, we have always known about the men’s Facebook group.  …  It was only when we knew it was about us that we took real offense.  That made us realize that we, as women, also contribute to the culture and climate that allows Facebook groups like the one at issue to persist and flourish.”

Take-away #2:  Also alive is a revenge culture that believes in the virtue of hurt.

Besides the remorse marbleized throughout, the Statement exudes resentment of the pressure and outright meanness of those who wanted blood.  From the get-go, the press and social media insisted the men be expelled at a minimum, and taken to court and prison, if possible.  What empathy there was for the women was expressed as rage at the men.  The backlash against using restorative justice itself was hot and hateful.  Midway through the process, the victims pleaded with the public to let the process play out.  RJ was their choice, after all, but the public bloodlust continued.

The offenders say, “The efforts of some to gain information about us have resulted in significant threats and harms against us and our families.”  Their families?!  Wow.

Mind you, the victims were satisfied.  They wanted the right to determine how to resolve the matter.  The entire group negotiated consequences for the men.  The Statement purposely gives no specifics beyond that each man performed at least 150 community service hours.  And from the time the story broke, they’d been suspended from performing their clinical hours, delaying their graduation at best.

The statement by participating faculty members says:  “Many felt the issues around the Facebook incident were black and white — a group of students did a terrible thing and should be expelled.  However, first and foremost we are educators.  Punitive measures such as expulsion do not change attitudes or positively influence future behaviour, nor do they address underlying systemic problems.  [The women] saw restorative justice as the most promising path towards meaningful change.”

The establishment of guilt, and meting out of hurt, doesn’t change anything for the better.  It’s revenge, an eye for an eye.  The punished offender often grows more defensive, resentful, hopeless of redemption and incapable of improving.  For that reason, traditional justice produces high rates of recidivism.  If changing behavior really is the point, punishment is not working.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Recidivism is Expensive, Let’s Try Something Else

Published by EducationNews.org — Trying to punish people into compliance costs a lot, and more importantly, doesn’t work.

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This is our third look at how Judge Pamela Williams, in her mental health court in Nova Scotia, successfully kept offenders from further contact with police, courts, and jail.  Using the CoSA model — see last week’s column — she worked with experts in different fields to figure out how to “help them out of the place that they are in,” as she put it.

Today’s question is: CoSA works, but at what cost?

To set the stage, first conjure in your mind an Excel budget sheet.  Labels at the top read: Housing, Health, Mental Health, Prison, Courts, Children Protective Services, Schools, Higher Ed, Workforce Development, and I’m sure you can think of more.  Each of these state or city public services has its own mission, and not to confuse things, each has its own huge budget spreadsheet. Hierarchies, job descriptions, and business habits are baked into those budgets, leaving little flexibility.  So as we consider another of Judge Williams’ stories illustrating her Court’s challenges, mentally map where various costs might be posted, but remember that Judge Williams herself controls only her portion of the Excel column marked “Courts.”

A woman we’ll call Rosalie was “a very complex case.”

Rosalie had limited intelligence, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.  Also, she was an unusually large woman, which added to the extent that she was hard to control at times.

Occasionally she’d sink into a depression so severe she became suicidal.  She’d sneak out of her group home and head for a particular bridge where she’d threaten to end her life.  Not that she did.  But the police couldn’t just let traffic flow by an apparent suicide in progress; they had to close the bridge.  Bridges over water, such as this one, have no side streets to which traffic can be diverted.

A competent bean-counter could probably arrive at a solid estimated cost for the small platoon of police needed to get her into an ambulance or patrol car… and the emergency efforts of the Department of Transportation, her subsequent hospitalization, public defenders, and so on.  However, it’s impossible to monetize the inconvenienced drivers who were late to appointments, no-shows at job interviews, or charged extra for late daycare pick-up.

Yes, of course they had tried to stop her.  Ferverently.  Rosalie had been in court repeatedly, jailed, on probation, back in prison — caught in an expensive, vicious cycle.  The Law could keep her locked up, but she was a wretched innocent, not a criminal deserving the punishment of prison.  The costs of punishing her into compliance were also not cheap, but more importantly, not working.

The traditional courts sent her over to Judge Williams.

Williams assembled her CoSA team of professionals, including the directors of Rosalie’s group home.  Obviously the directors had talked to the police and other agencies on her behalf.  But under what circumstances, other than a CoSA meeting at Williams’ court, would they sit down together to get it to stop?  Typically, the psychiatrist of record hardly talks to the therapist, never mind solves problems with a team that includes family and other stakeholders.  Where is the Excel column for cross-agency collaboration?

In any case, the group discovered that Rosalie absolutely treasured her home.  It was comfortable, with kind friends who took her back, fed and soothed her.  They concluded that her love of her home could be carefully deployed as leverage.  No one wants to do tough love.  But they worked with Rosalie to get a deal with her — if she did her bridge thing again, she would be banned from the home and need to live somewhere else.

Predictably, in time, it happened once more.  Williams didn’t say where Rosalie lived or for how long after her poor choice.  Wherever it was, she hated it passionately, as all had hoped.  Per prior agreement, and after a painful amount of time, she was allowed back into the home and never offended again.  It worked.

Williams says, “We have one mental-health court.  Even that court doesn’t have enough resources.  It’s expensive to restore broken people and relationships.  The people around those offenders are broken.  Victims are broken.”  Everyone involved in a crime needs the healing powers of restoration — or the problems linger, or worse, fester.

But only through sheer power of persuasion, and judicious use of scarce resources, did Judge Williams get experts from across the Excel spreadsheet to jump their column.  Who pays for that?  No group home runs on such a cushy margin, they can easily send people for team meetings.  Therapists and psychiatrists don’t work for free, so the entire spreadsheet would have to ease up so the resources are there to make up these teams.   Think of the cost savings to Police, Health, Transportation, etc.

Recidivism is absurdly expensive.  Rosalie’s trips to the bridge cost a fortune.  Stopping them, in a humane fashion, saved a lot of money for Police, Transportation, Emergency Medicine, and more, not to mention the taxpaying public.  If the real goal of Justice is to reduce recidivism, Judge Williams has excellent answers.  What we’re doing now doesn’t work for anyone.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Reducing Recidivism Requires Strong Political Will

Published by EducationNews.org — The challenge is to keep offenders from just cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.

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Back in the 1990s a Mennonite minister, Harry Nigh, developed a protocol for radically reducing recidivism among sex offenders.  The common assumption to this day — probably even yours — is that nothing can be done about this particularly creepy form of criminal activity.  Not true.

The Circle of Support and Accountability, or CoSA, works amazingly, as I first learned from expert Robin Wilson.  Furthermore, CoSA works so well, it’s being used to divert or re-integrate those who’ve committed all sorts of crimes.  In fact, in a recent workshop designed to scale up Restorative Justice in Vermont, the practitioner attendees talked as if it were the go-to model for virtually all social service problems.  We’ll get an example in a moment.

Know first that the CoSA research data rocks:

*  83% reduction in recidivism for sexual offenses

*  73% reduction in recidivism for all types of violent offenses

*  71% overall reduction of in all types of recidivism in comparison to matched groups of offenders who did not have a CoSA.

The model is fairly simple.  Picture an inner and an outer circle, with the “core member,” or offender, at the center.  The inner or informal circle is made up of family, friends, neighbors, fishing pals, whoever is willing to have regular, frequent contact with the person getting help.  CoSA for the sex offenders mostly uses trained volunteers, but volunteers could be added to any team if the person is very isolated.

The outer circle consists of professionals who work on the more complex barriers to success — addiction, housing, psychiatry, social services.  Here’s a graphic of the model.  Wrapping a person in structured support seems like an intuitive way of solving social problems.  Think of extended families working together to raise a particularly difficult kid.

Nathan suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome

A young man we’ll call Nathan came before Judge Pamela Williams’ mental health court in Nova Scotia.  (Last week’s column has more about her and mental health courts.)  Babies born of women who drink alcohol heavily during any part of the pregnancy can be born with conditions like hyperactivity, developmental delays, speech and language delays, and low intelligence.

Nathan could not, as Judge Williams said, “connect the dots.”  Cause and effect meant nothing to him.  Consequences were meaningless.  He’d been jailed by the traditional courts for a variety of criminal charges.  His drug involvement only increased his disruptiveness and irrationality.  His parents were at wits’ end.  Lastly, it had come to light that he was being sexually exploited by an older man.  The traditional court judges sent him over to Judge Williams, whose claim to fame was her remarkably low recidivism rate.

Judge Williams had become increasingly adept at using CoSA.

As she put it, in the Vermont workshop, the challenge was to build Nathan an “external brain.”  Parents are their children’s external brain until the kids are mature enough to make good decisions on their own.  Nathan would never make great decisions autonomously.

Over her years as a judge, Williams had collected expert collaborators into teams, one for health, one for job skills, homelessness, and so forth.  Depending on the case, the appropriate team would help her form that professional circle of experts who understood how to keep problematic people out of the courts, prisons and hospitals.  When the experts had done their assessments, Williams brought the immediate parties into her court for a restorative-justice conference — the pros, Nathan and his parents.  Together they designed a plan that could work for everyone, especially Nathan.

Nathan was far more high-maintenance than Jane, the bipolar gambling addict of last week’s story.  Unlike Jane, Nathan’s informal inner circle will always need ongoing professional support.  So the first order of business was to get him into a structured living environment capable of monitoring Nathan’s constant needs.  That allowed his previously-oppressed parents to become his fun companions on outings and visits.

Nathan’s access to the internet was supervised.  But importantly, Williams’ mental health team alerted the police to online sexual exploitation, and that led to a conversation about working with the cops on the problem.  Restorative justice uses the crime at hand to look into the future for ways to eliminate or mitigate issues the crime has revealed.  The professionals helped Nathan fill his free time with more productive activities.  Through assessments, they found that Nathan could work successfully as a flagger on road projects — work that makes him so proud that he’s highly motivated to cooperate.

Oh, you betcha.  CoSA is labor-intensive.  But it works.  Williams considers it her judicial charge and challenge to keep offenders from cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.

Ah, but at what cost?  Next week, the last column in this series will consider costs.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Justice System Can’t Ignore Mental Health

Published by EducationNews.org — We need to understand each other’s stories for justice to get done.

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Chief Judge Pamela Williams, Provincial and Family Courts of Nova Scotia

A woman we’ll call Jane embezzled money from her company. She’d been feeding a nasty gambling habit and her boss figured it out.  She was arrested, jailed, and wound up in front of a judge.

Now, what would normally happen at this point in her story is that the courts would determine her guilt or innocence, via lawyers and evidence.  Actually, her crime was so blatant, they hardly needed to bother.  After exhausting a lot of resources proving the obvious, she normally would have been sentenced and added to the prison population for who-knows-how long.

Instead, lucky Jane came before Judge Pamela Williams, who then presided over the mental health court in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Williams has since become the Chief Judge of the region’s Family Courts.  Her career began with 20 years working with Legal Aid, focusing mostly on the mentally ill, drug-addicted, poor, and illiterate.  In 2003 she was appointed to be a judge in the juvenile justice courts.  In that role, she made a name for herself by radically reducing recidivism, which really should be the point of a court system.  Her success led to her being tapped to develop a specialized mental health court in 2010.  It was there that she met Jane.

For years, Jane had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. 

Jane gambled compulsively during her manic episodes.  This is by no means excuses what she did.  But she was falling apart.  Her marriage was on the rocks, and of course her former employer all but wanted blood.  The traditional justice system is not really set up to consider the conditions in which a crime is committed.  A crook is a crook, no matter the complicated circumstances such as mental illness.

Whether in Halifax or the U.S., the mentally ill tend to get involved with the law, which only sees guilt and innocence as the issue, not how to stop the cycle.  In America, the largest mental health facilities are prisons.

When working in the juvenile justice system, Williams began using restorative justice techniques.  As such, she used the occasion of the crime as a red flag signaling mental or social illness.  Before passing judgment, she reached out to the kid’s immediate and extended family, social services, teachers, and whomever could help get him or her out of whatever wretched place they were in and onto a more productive road.

When possible, the offender would face his victims and hear their experience.  The kid needed to make things right by doing restitution and taking responsibility for her actions.  But the group needed to get to the root problem and solve it so the community was not continuously harmed by the anti-social behavior, or recidivism would surely occur.  Not surprisingly, the RJ is far more effective at reducing reoffending than traditional justice, because its techniques unpack mitigating circumstances like mental illness.

Jane’s was a relatively simple case.  

Williams got professionals involved to get her stabilized on proper drugs.  Once she was stable, Jane’s husband was willing to let those same professionals educate him about the illness itself and what he could do to de-escalate her symptoms and to take care of himself.  She learned to be more responsible; he learned to avoid being victimized by her.

Once Jane had a support system in place, Williams held a RJ conference (meeting) with the employer who, frankly, called Jane a liar and a thief.  But when he heard the larger story about her journey with mental illness, he felt less targeted and also less victimized.  The conference participants helped her figure out how to make restitution to the employer.  He walked away satisfied.

Williams says, “Once we understand each others’ stories, it helps.  Jane heard how her actions had affected others.”  She felt the hurt she’d caused.  Her remorse motivates her to be med compliant and self-controlled.  End of story.

The Courts never saw her again.  A very good thing.  We need to understand more about mental health courts because they have the ability to stop whatever cycle the troubled person is in.

We’ll hear more of William’s fund of cases and experiences in the coming couple of weeks.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Restorative Justice in Vermont 22 Years On

Published by EducationNews.org — Centralized quality control and some standardization need to be balanced with local community culture.

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“Fifty years from now, people will look back and see a truly transformative model.  One that applies not only to what human beings really are, but also what they really need from justice.”

I realize many a group of radicals, idealists or visionaries have made similar statements, also in pursuit of Justice, often in basements of churches or empty storefronts.

But this time is different.  The Restorative Justice ideas transforming Vermont’s public services are no longer new and radical.  At least, not there.  Since 1993, they’ve been taking root and growing in Vermont’s culture.  On this lovely June day in 2015, Marc Milhaly, President of Vermont Law School, makes the statement above to Restorative Justice (RJ) practitioners representing all 14 of Vermont’s counties, across different public sectors from justice to schools.  Today’s topic is how to take the existing good programs and scale them up.  Vermont wants to be a fully Restorative state, but currently has many pockets of Restorative excellence and not yet a full transformation.  Still, the hard work is laudably underway.

A bit of history

Back in the 1990s, Vermont officials decided RJ would help them shrink their prison system along with the rising costs associated with incarceration.  And especially in the case of juvenile offenders, the traditional punishment system tended just to make things worse.  Kids’ rebellion only hardened.  Corrections didn’t teach them the social skills they needed to be successful in the community, so the state funded its 14 counties to develop juvenile justice diversion systems designed to respond directly to the needs of crime victims and to get offending youth onto a productive path.  For these diversion systems to be considered “restorative” they needed to recognize that:

1.  Crime is a violation of people and relationships.  (As opposed to a crime against the laws of the state.)

2.  Violations create obligations.  (Such as restitution, repair of harm, perhaps apology)

3.  Restorative justice engages victims, offenders and community members — all those affected by the crime — in an effort to put things right.

Key here is “putting things right.”  You can’t do that unless the people who’ve been affected get a say in “what’s right.”  The traditional system has no place for victims to take an active role in decision making, not to mention involving the community in which they all live.  The new systems must be radically inclusive, because at the end of the day, victims and offenders need to be okay with one another as they return to their lives in their tight-knit Vermont villages.

However radical, the guidelines above are also very broad

Vermont’s spirit is not exactly “Live Free or Die” — that would be New Hampshire — but it too has fiercely autonomous towns.  The various counties created strategies that were different from one another.  Some adapted techniques used abroad in places like New Zealand and Australia.  Others studied the Mennonites and the works of Howard Zehr and developed their own.  But as a result, “each county as its own unique constellations of programs and agencies that deliver restorative justice interventions,” according to an as-yet unpublished report on Advancing RJ.

Not surprisingly, then, RJ is unevenly executed across the state.  Some conference attendees worried out loud that some initiatives were Restorative in name only.  And others had considerable concern about access to RJ services, which are hardly equitable.  In communities that embraced the work early and enthusiastically, victims and offenders are well-informed about their restorative options.  Elsewhere, not so much.  Just as zip codes can determine the quality of a kid’s education, to a lesser extent access to restorative diversion differs depending on where you live in Vermont.  The state would like access, training and fidelity to the model to be more standardized.

The state wants to exercise some quality control

Officials have formed a central Oversight committee, which was not uniformly popular among conference participants.  Finding a balance will not be easy, but they’re onto something critically important.  As other states go forward, they too will run into this problem.  How can a state’s judicial system — and schools, social services, other public services — balance centralized quality control with genuine, truly local community involvement?  Hard question, but fascinating to ponder.

Too much standardization runs the risk of letting the public system become more important than the people it’s supposed to serve.  God knows this is a huge danger.  Healthcare is a business that creates unhealthy conditions because hospitals, insurance companies and the like put their own corporate health first.  The education industry can become so threatened and self-focused that it becomes more important than those it is supposed to educate.

The balance will be challenging in every state.  The Vermont participants seemed clear that this natural tension would inform, but not hinder, their efforts to scale up.  Centralized quality control, equity and some standardization will always need to be delicately balanced with local culture, traditions and beliefs.  Otherwise, people will not, as Milhaly says, get what they need.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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#Cut50 Aims to Halve Prison Population in 10 Years

Published by EducationNews.org — Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. Photo: www.cut50.org

Photo: cut50.org — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.

Van Jones is the President and co-founder of Dream Corps, a Civil Rights advocacy group.  Jones got his law degree from Yale, writes best-selling books, has served as an advisor to more than one U.S. President, and is a familiar liberal commentator on TV and radio.

Today what’s most impressive about him is that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Newt Gingrich, a conservative hardliner, in a bipartisian effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America.   Together and with other organizations, they hope “to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.”  For short, the movement goes by #cut50.

How on earth are they going to do that?  Answer:  they just are.  It’s immoral not to.  Think of it as JFK declaring that America would have a man on the moon in ten years, and without any evidence of being on such a track, NASA did it anyway.

The lift will be epic, Herculean.

If America were even to get close to the rates of incarceration in Europe, for example, we’d have to get within spitting distance of 150 inmates per 100,000 people.  The UK, currently with the highest incarceration rate in Europe, is at 148 per 100,000.  (France, 100; Germany, 77; Finland, 58.)  We’re at 707.  Not a miss, but a mile.  War-torn Rwanda’s 2013 rate was 492 per 100,000, for heaven’s sake.  We’re not even in the ballpark.

Can we, as a nation, wrap our heads around the idea that our notion of discipline has morphed into cruelty?  Can we get over the “tough on crime” mantra?  Can we learn and practice empathy, so when offenders are sentenced, we’re actually unwilling to throw away the entire life of that 19-year-old car thief?  Is there any evidence anywhere that prisons improve behavior?  Or can we admit that the humungous size of our prison population strongly argues otherwise?  Interestingly, the most common demographic factor among inmates, including females and whites, is that they are high-school dropouts.  Can we help schools intervene when students seem headed for trouble?

It would take all that and more to cut the prison population from just under 2.4 million to under 1.2.

A sample of initiatives that could make #cut50 successful. 

We need all the good ideas we can muster to get us out of this mess.  A good start would be reversing the three big drivers of mass incarceration, according to The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., outlined in last week’s column.

1.  End “life” sentences.  Remember, Europe considers 10 years to be a long sentence, even for violent crime.  After how many years does a sentence become vindictive, retributive and plain cruel?

One in nine U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence.  Of these, roughly 10,000 were convicted of a non-violent crime.  Prisoners serving life without parole, those with no hope of being released even as decrepit old people, increased by 22% since 2008.  Most horribly, about 10,000 of the lifers were under 18 when they committed their crime.  Babies.  And about a quarter of them have no hope of parole.  Not that it excuses their crime, but the human brain’s executive function isn’t even fully developed until the early 20s, so they’re still paying at age 60 for what they did at 16.  These are your tax dollars at work.  To what public benefit?

2.  Vastly improve community sanctions.  Give judges the leeway to send offenders home to perform restitution under intensive supervision.  No one’s behavior gets corrected by Corrections.  If anything, prison makes it far worse.  Most inmates are coming out at some point.  You want communities to be fully equipped to handle them when they do come out.  Invest the resources into the community itself instead of ignoring the circumstances that produced an offender.

For example. an impressively successful technique, called “circle of support and accountability” (CoSA) was originally developed for sex offenders, long considered incorrigible.  It is now validated by research.  A CoSA case manager organizes an team of family, neighbors, friends and supporters who work with a team of professionals — social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists.  Together they wrap attention and services around offender as he learns to live, reliably, according to community norms.  If it works for sex offenders, it can surely work for the vandal, the drug addict and most especially the person suffering from mental illness.  CoSA is vastly cheaper than prisons, far more effective at reintegrating miscreants, and dramatically reducing recidivism rates.

3.  End the War on Drugs.  Period.  Why are so many people self-medicating?  Europe treats addicts.  Why do we punish them instead?  Let’s stop.

Do we have the political will to make such changes?  The #cut50 movement is sparking all sorts of debate on the subject.  Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?  God, I hope not.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

 

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What Does Mass Incarceration Say About American Democracy?

Published by EducationNews.org — How we chose to build up the largest prison population in the world.

mass_incarceration

America’s torrid love affair with jails and prisons is hardly breaking news.  Since the late 1990s, academics called for the end of mass incarceration because their data revealed shameful racial disparities.  Fat lot of good it’s done.  Now we’re up to just under 2.4 million people behind bars, mostly men of color.  The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The rate of incarceration is four times what it was four decades ago.

This phenomenon is both historically unprecedented and internationally unique.  Even the United Kingdom, with the next highest rate in the Western world, incarcerates only 148 per 100,000 people as compared with our 707 per 100,000.  The U.S. has more people behind bars than Russia or China.

America’s investment in punishment costs about $63 billion a year — $63,000,000,000.  And that’s not counting such social costs as ruined families, lost income, shame, and stigma.

How in God’s name did we get here?

Speaking recently, Jeremy Travis provided some answers to that question.  Working with the National Academies of Science, Travis is one of the three editors of The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., which present the conclusions of a huge project that studied the issue.  Each chapter has 2-page summaries, and the whole book is downloadable.  Currently Travis serves as President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City college system.  Previously he was the director of the National Institute of Justice and before that, the Urban League.

Referring to the events and racial tensions of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, Travis says “The instinct of white people is to talk about the event.  Black people talk about history.  Now we all need to talk about history.”  The current that sparked these events is not recent, but generations old — what Travis calls “the failed promise of Emancipation.”

Let’s start with 1920, which is when incarceration data became reliable.  From then to 1972, we imprisoned roughly 100,000 to 110,000 people annually.  Humongous historical changes took place during that time, including the Great Depression and World War II.  Even Prohibition came and went without changing that number.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s came the social unsettling of America.  The Civil Rights movement exposed profound racial and social inequities.  We also had hippies, “free love” and the decline of traditional communities, as documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  Crime levels rose.  The public felt unsafe.  So President Richard Nixon, among others, campaigned with slogans about being “tough on crime.”  Soon all politicians needed to be tougher than their opponents.  And tough meant punitive, retributive, primitive — an eye for an eye.

The bottom line, Travis says, is that, “We are here because we chose to be here.  Through our democratic process we elected these people — not that I voted for them — but we chose them.  Judges, prosecutors.  And they delivered on their promises by making more things criminal than before.  And by meting out longer sentences.”

The three drivers of mass incarceration:

1.  Legislators, and to some extent governors, got “zero-tolerance” laws passed, such as “three strikes and you’re out.”  “Out” means life without parole.  Lawmakers cared little about the specifics or degree of the offense, never mind the offender’s circumstances.  Just throw away the key.  By now we have what Travis calls “geriatric prisons.  Nursing homes behind bars.  What’s the possible safety benefit?  Zero or close to zero.”  (For the record, Europe rarely imposes life sentences, limiting even murder convictions to 10 years.  A mere decade in prison ruins an offender’s life, so “life” is just vindictive.)

2.  Again, it was elected officials who imposed mandatory minimal sentences, thereby removing judicial discretion.  With non-violent offenses, there’s no public safety benefit to sending a guy to prison when he can serve his sanctions in the community.  Let the judge decide if Johnny wouldn’t be better off living with his family, doing his restitution close to home.  Institutionalizing him in a horrible place won’t improve his behavior.  Indeed, all evidence points to the contrary.  Give discretion back to judges.

3.  By far the biggest driver was the War on Drugs. Drug convictions, which had been rare, grew nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010.  Rather suddenly drugs became far more available.  Politicians took a zero-tolerance approach to addiction and self-medication, especially among the urban poor.

So people are eligible for prison for far more offenses; offenders serve more time, and they’re barred from humane judges’ wisdom, mercy or ability to consider circumstances.  We, the people, did this – mainly to young men of color.

Travis says, “I think mass incarceration is one of the most profound moral crises in America.  If this is the new normal, we have to be concerned about the value of our democracy and its impact on our communities.”

But now what?  How do we turn around the fearful, punitive, and oh, by the way, racist mentality that got us here?  More next week.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Student Advocates for Better Discipline, Restorative Practices

Published by EducationNews.org — When adults and students don’t take time to listen to each other, they can’t possibly develop empathy.

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Xilian Sansoucy was hungry for leadership opportunities when she began her freshman year at Classical High School, an exam school in Providence.  “I think it’s exhilarating to present” in public, she said.  A friend pulled her into an organization called Young Voices (YV) which specializes in just that, nurturing student leadership. In collaboration with other student organizations, leaders from YV increasingly make themselves known and heard around the state, advocating for issues they’ve agreed are important. Sansoucy took to YV like the proverbial duck to water.

Young Voices’ training begins with gathering their new recruits into student-led workshops where they research a question and share their discoveries.  In one of these exercises, Sansoucy’s research on school discipline strategies revealed stark, even startling, differences between discipline at her old school, a private independent, and her new one, very much a public school.  She explains that as an Asian-American, she chose Classical for its student diversity and “to get opened up to the real world.”  Part of that real world is Classical’s traditional discipline system that relies primarily on suspensions and detention to control behavior.

She says, “But suspensions just postpone getting to a solution.  Then the student gets suspended again, and the problem still doesn’t get solved.  Some students like suspensions because they don’t like school.  So how are suspensions helping?”

The one time she remember a fellow private school student being suspended, he was completely out of control with rage.  She didn’t know why he was so mad, but he was calm when he came back.  His time away was more about cooling off than getting kicked out.

In the workshop on school discipline strategies, Sansoucy was able to put the words to her private school discipline: “restorative justice” and “restorative practices.”  If she misbehaved in her old school, she’d have to sit down with adults and discuss the issue until it was resolved or the circumstances restored.  Problems got solved and kids were less inclined to misbehavior.  So the disparities in approaches to discipline became an equity issue for her: her experience of private school discipline is that it works on teaching behavior with restorative conversations; public school kids get kicked out.

You and I might suggest that public school kids generally have more and tougher issues. Teachers have larger classes of these harder students.  Sansoucy would reject these circumstances as reasons not to give the students the attention they clearly need.  She feels that while public schools have many terrific teachers, they also tolerate teachers who just don’t care and who let their students know that.  When adults and students aren’t listening to one another, or don’t take the time to, they can’t possibly develop empathy for one another.  She believes that this lack of caring is feeds the punitive mentality.

Conversely, she feels that her private school teachers were so much more connected to the students that they noticed interpersonal tensions long before they festered into problems.  When a girl-fight did blow up into open argument, teachers sat down with them after school for as many days as it took to get to the bottom of the issue.  One girl was popular and the other resentful about getting left out of everything.  “We started to see them getting along again and hanging out.  I definitely believed that they (the private school) had the solution.  If they’d ignored the fight, it would have gotten worse.  The one girl was not wanting to come to school.”

Sansoucy says, “The downside is that restorative practices take more time and dedication from the teachers.  But it doesn’t have to be too fancy.  Being able to sit down in a circle with whoever has misbehaved, after school or in a classroom, doesn’t cost extra.  It’s just about getting people on board.  Once teachers and adults realize it’s more efficient, kids will stop misbehaving so much, and there will be more learning time.  It’s just a matter of helping them visualize how this will play out.  I’ve started spreading awareness of restorative practices.”

Already as a sophomore, this plucky young woman now goes out and speaks in intimidating circumstances.  She reports that her conversation with the Governor “was really nerve-wracking.”  Most recently she represented student voice in a speech to the annual Kids Count breakfast, easily the biggest political event of the year for those concerned with children and youth in Rhode Island.  Among her other remarks to them, she said:

“Currently at Classical, our discipline system has been very old fashioned.  But we can replace these punitive practices with restorative justice.  No student should be suspended for being tardy…  No student should have to get detention or suspension for something that easily could have been prevented by a simple talk with an adult, [allowing them to explain] why they had misbehaved, instead of expecting them to figure out for themselves what they’d done wrong.  If high school students are expected to behave like adults, we need to be treated like adults.”

She got a well-deserved standing ovation.  If she is the picture of future leadership, we might do very well.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

[Image: Peter Goldberg Photo]

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Give Students a Voice So They Can Improve Their Own School

Published by EducationNews.org — Working on a system to help troubled students stay in school, but be accountable to the community.

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Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO).  Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword.  As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting.  SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates.  But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.

The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves.  But not according to any intentional strategy.  While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.”  As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now.  We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”

About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged.  Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC).  Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues.  They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.

Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.

The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building.  The school community had complained for years.  Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask.  With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.

Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying.  That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her.  Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged.  “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”

In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate.  The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day – the third highest rate in the district.

I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments.  Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school.  “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions.  Was there a cycle of delinquency?  Were the problems of home being carried into the school?  We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”

Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness.  Really?

Surely there were the alternatives.

The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs.  The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct.  They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.

With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students.  They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.

Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases.  “(The student) had talked back to a teacher.  We all knew he’d done what he’d done.  Guilt was already determined.  But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story.  We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension.  Then we told him what he had to do to make it right.  At the end he said thank you.  I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”

In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up.  Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable.  As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”

Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift.  It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset.  For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”

Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed.  I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad.  Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”

Fatoumata, a Junior, says:  “Voice is everything.  No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”

For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions.  With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle.  The adults beamed at them.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Dalhousie, A University With the Guts To Teach

Published by EducationNews.org — Restorative Justice has been tried, honed, and is now mature enough to weather the media onslaught.

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Our story takes place at top-ranked Dalhousie University in Canada.  A bunch of bad-boy dentistry students, in their 4th and last year of training, used an invitation-only Facebook page as their online men’s locker room.  Interspersed with aggressively vulgar and misogynistic posts, the men discussed their women colleagues by name.  As in:  Which woman would you most like to have “hate sex” with?  (I had to look it up.)

Last December, one of them outed the page to one of the targeted female students.  Then screen shots went viral.  And though the page was deleted, damage was done.  Immediately, the public was out for blood.  A petition demanding the men’s expulsion from the school amassed 42,000 signatures in a week.  Some faculty members similarly issued their own petition.  Kick ‘em out; heads should roll; get them out of sight and out of mind.  The media was having a field day, just as it has been with the recent rash of outed college misbehavior — drug dealing, racism, and rape.

Colleges knock themselves out to manage their students’ bad behavior privately.  Their rankings and fundraising depend on maintaining the image of an institution with noble purpose.  So, if the scandal does go public, lay the blame squarely on offenders and dispose of them.  They were the root of the problem.  They’re now expelled.  Let’s put this behind us.  End of story.

Dalhousie chooses a far tougher road:  Restorative Justice.

All 13 men have been suspended from fulfilling their clinic hours, which means that they’ll likely not graduate on time, at a minimum.  So far, that is the only apparent consequence – because all of Dalhousie’s misbehaving students are given a choice.  They can lawyer up, as did the whistleblower, and take their chances in the conventional court system.

Or, if they accept responsibility for their actions, they can participate in a Restorative Justice process.  Heads might still roll one day.  But first, University facilitators work with offenders, victims and those most directly affected.  They talk with the individuals and later bring them together as a group to understand what on earth happened.  The group will determine what would set things right, including what consequences offenders should face.

In this case, 12 of the 13 offenders agreed to the process, as did the victims and classmates not directly involved.  Almost the entire 2015 Dentistry class, 29 students total, opted to participate.  If this sounds warm and fuzzy, imagine discussing such an ugly rift with people you once considered colleagues, if not friends.  The hurt, the anger, the shame.

The Dalhousie site, dedicated to updating the public, explains:

The restorative process… requires those who have caused harm to accept responsibility and be accountable for the consequences of their actions… When wrongdoing occurs, justice requires attention to the needs of those who have been harmed… In this case this includes harm to those directly affected and more broadly to the public trust.

Restorative Justice (RJ) is not new to Dalhousie.  Certain professors in their law school are passionate RJ advocates, including Jennifer Llewellyn, whom I’ve heard speak at international conferences.  The Dalhousie RJ process has been tried, honed, and is now mature enough to weather the media onslaught currently vilifying the University’s choices.

Two remarkable things are happening.

First, the University is turning itself inside out, allowing the issues to be examined in their fullness.  On a dedicated site, the University President regularly updates the public to the extent confidentiality allows him.  He explains that the RJ evolves in its own time, so no, they do not know when it will be concluded. The University’s Committee for Academic Standards and professionalism is conducting an investigation of its own.  And a task force has been convened to investigate “Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry.”

This is not sweeping matters under the rug.

Second, all 29 participating students recently wrote an open letter to the public begging outsiders and the media to back off and quit trying to interfere with the process or to stop it.  Published unedited, the impressive document concludes:

We believe that the education and perspective that we are gaining through our participation in the restorative justice process will allow us to be better healthcare providers, colleagues, and representatives of Dalhousie University. We ask, as a group, that our privacy and our right to pursue this restorative process off the public stage be respected. The constant public attention has been harmful and even sometimes threatening to us, our families and friends…  We hope that through this process our voices and experiences will make significant contributions to the important public discussions about sexism, misogyny, inclusion, and professionalism.

In other words, let the process teach.  Let the public learn from the participants.  Bad-boy bad apples are the symptoms, not the cause.  Kicking them out doesn’t help the University or anyone else get to the depth of cultural dysfunction that is erupting on campuses.

Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons offers a readable, if brutal, window into the pervasiveness of sickening cultural norms at high-end colleges.  Restorative justice can dig into those norms in the course of dealing with the offenders and the people they hurt.  Dalhousie is exercising true accountability.  As such, they are good teachers — and importantly, good learners.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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