Posts Tagged Retributive justice

To End School-to-Prison Pipeline, Focus on Mental Health

Published by —  We’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly.

God knows what possessed me, but instead of multi-tasking I stayed glued to every hideous moment of PBS’s Solitary Nation.  The Warden of Maine State Prison, Rodney Bouffard, so questions the practice of solitary confinement that he allowed TV cameras to document 6 months in his solitary-confinement unit.  The hour-long piece shows blood, guts, feces, desperate screaming, and a level of misery that makes the worst media violence look tame and staged.

Don’t watch it.  Honestly.  Just take my word.  I squirmed knowing that as an American, I allow a public system to commit this torture.  Costing enormous taxpayer dollars, solitary turns human beings into self-mutilating, self-loathing, fiercely-murderous animals.  Mind you, these guys committed a violent crime while in prison.  But we’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly, by putting them in a prison-within-a-prison.

Bouffard says that 80% of his offenders will be released.  “You can have them do their time in isolation, but I don’t want them living next to me when you release them.  The normal person thinks that if you punish them, they’re going to get better.  The reality is the opposite.  It’s really dangerous.”  Got that?  What we’re doing is really dangerous.

Ironically, Maine’s laudable prison reforms have yielded the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, 145 people per 100,000.  That state works hard to imprison only those who can’t be maintained safely in the community.  Louisiana’s rate is almost 900, the highest, but the average is 480.

The school-to-prison pipeline generously feeds this system.

Violent criminals start young.  One Maine inmate tells of having killed two prison guards while already in prison at age 16.  Sixteen?!  How old was he when he committed the crime that first got him in prison?  Fifteen?  Fourteen?

Somehow he’s got a wife and 2 daughters.  As a lifer with no hope of release, he wants to be transferred to a prison near them so they can visit.  With chilling credibility, he says that with nothing to lose, he has no incentive not to kill again, and threatens the very people in the room.  He wants medication because it makes him calmer, more social.  But the officials feel he hasn’t learned his lesson and so hasn’t deserved the break.  Like he’s still a wayward schoolboy.

First we kick bad kids out of school.  Then we kick young offenders out of society, and finally we kick bad prisoners out of the prison’s mainstream.

Punishment doesn’t work, never has.

There are two basic theories of punishment that both rest on certain assumptions, whether for adults or juveniles.  “Retributists” assume bad guys deserve what they get.  They had choices and made a bad one; they hurt someone, so we’ll hurt them.  “Utilitarians” believe punishment deters future criminal activity.  Next time they’ll think twice.  Actually, research shows that over three quarters of ex-cons recidivate within five years, so forget that.  In any case, these theories assume that criminals are rational people weighing costs and benefits.

In fact, criminals tend to be young and impulsive, and not surprisingly, they usually have personal histories of trauma.  Fully 20% of prison populations have a diagnosed mental illness.  Far from rational, these are kids, or people with seriously impaired thinking.  In solitary they slash their wrists or misbehave wildly to get admitted to the mental health unit where meds will ease the rage, urges and pain.

Why not allow the dangerous to be chemically restrained?

Prison psychiatrist Dan Bannish says that his mental-health unit “is about treatment, not punishment.  Everything is geared toward skill development, relationship building and appropriate interactions.  Everything about it is about becoming social.  They’re used to coming from environments where people hurt each other, where they’re anti-social.  This is a whole build-up of how you relate to other people.  You have to practice it every day.”

Right, because big surprise:  these guys were lacking pro-social skills in the first place.  The science of “criminogenics” argues that the way to prevent recidivism is to make sure that when offenders are released, they are not socially isolated or still holding the antisocial beliefs that lead to their misbehavior.  In other words, they shouldn’t be in the same crazy-making situation they were in when they committed their crime.  As an advocate for children’s mental health, this makes me crazy.

Currently America’s incarcerated population is 2.4 million people, the largest by both rate and number in the world.  Of the total, 51% are drug-related offenders.  Robbers are only 4% and murderers 1%.  Substance abuse is a mental illness.

Therefore, raw prison statistics argue that we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not a nation with the world’s largest share of bad guys.

It’s insane to spend massive amounts of resources on punishment instead of mental health promotion.  Our priorities further crush vulnerable kids growing up in harsh conditions.

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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Is International Restorative Justice Week?

Published by — The U.S. is lagging the developed world on this issue.

Internationally, the Restorative Justice community set aside November 17-24 to celebrate the power of Restoration.  Of the many sites offering resources on this topic, I recommend Canada’s, for a start.

But what is Restorative Justice?

Well, crudely, it’s an alternative to the justice system we’ve got — the one that now has about 2.2 million Americans behind bars at about $30,000 per inmate, per year.  (Do the math.)  Our punitive justice tends to ruin lives — of the offender and their community — and largely ignores the needs of the victims and their communities.

By contrast, restorative justice works to salvage the lives of all parties, victims, offenders, their families and their larger community, to the extent possible.  Restoration first caught fire in the late 1970s in New Zealand, and has since gone viral, permeating the judicial, social and educational systems of countries like Australia, Sweden, Norway and others.  It’s huge.  We’re lagging the developed world on this one.

To illustrate the distinction, I’ll relate the stories of two youthful offenders, Aaron and Powhare. The stems of their stories are almost identical, until they slam into their respective countries’ justice systems.

Aaron was from a small town in Vermont.  When his parents divorced, he lived with his father.  While he saw his mother occasionally, she did not have custody.  When he was 15, she was killed in a motorcycle accident.  The neighbors were fully aware that Aaron’s father was emotionally abusing the boy, but did nothing.  Who knows what the schools did or didn’t know, but Child Protective Services were never engaged on his behalf.  At 16, Aaron killed his father with a shotgun.

Powhare was from a small town in New Zealand.  I’m guessing from his name that he’s a Maori, an Aboriginal tribe that is a NZ minority group.  Powhare’s parents also divorced; he lived with Dad; mom was only nominally in the picture.  The neighbors knew the father was abusing the boy emotionally and physically, but did nothing.  Protective Services were never involved.  Powhare killed his father with a shotgun at 14.

Their fates diverge with two radically-different justice systems.

Aaron faced America’s retributive system, which asks:

*  What rules or laws were broken?

*  Who is to blame?

*  How should they be punished?

Oddly, Vermont, alone among the states, has a hugely successful restorative juvenile-justice system, which cuts recidivism to single digits and incarcerates the smallest percentage of youth in America. (Massachusetts is 8th lowest; vengeful Rhode Island is 31 from the top.)  However, Vermont law remands violent juvenile offenders into the adult system, where they get the punitive treatment.

Aaron pled guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a first-degree murder conviction.  The Court sentenced him to 22 years.  He now has a swastika tattoo and a mohawk, common efforts to signal toughness to ward off the assaults accepted as part of prison life.  This is our idea of “justice.”

The birth of Restorative Justice

In the late 1970s, the Maori elders demanded that the government stop incarcerating their kids at a disproportionally higher rate than White kids.  Post-prison, young offenders returned home worse — hardened, not accepting responsibility at all.  Instead, the elders wanted the offender, victim and their families to participate in their traditional tribal circle.  This evolved into “Family Group Conferencing,” a model of restorative justice.  All young offenders, of all races, are now offered FGC, although they can opt for conventional Court.  The severity of Powhare’s crime required his extended family to convince the Court of their commitment to supporting the boy’s restitution.

Restorative justice is “victim-driven,” focusing on repairing their harm, as much as possible, so the community can live together peacefully and safely.  Using a formal conferencing process, the victim, offender, and their families work with social workers and police to devise a restitution plan on which they all must agree.  To be eligible for FGC, the offender has to admit his guilt and take responsibility for his actions.  Restorative systems ask:

 *  Who has been hurt?

*  What are their needs?

*  Who is obligated to address those needs, to make restitution, and to restore relationships and the community as a whole, as best as possible?

The face-to-face conference is generally quite emotional and painful.

As a result of his conference, Powhare submitted to intensive Court supervision for 2 years, during which he agreed to live with the extended family.  He underwent a psyche assessment and counseling.  The restitution plan forbade drugs, alcohol or access to firearms.

In the end, Powhare got an education and now works for the NZ forest service.  Instead of incurring taxpayer costs for something he did at 14, he’s a productive, contributing member of family, tribe, and larger community.

To my mind, both boys were themselves victims, but only one encountered a justice system able to tease out his circumstances.  Restoration gave Powhare’s life back to him.  Retribution sent Aaron to prison, a place that turns inmates into primitive beasts, with infinitely reduced chances of making a decent life for themselves when they get out.  Aaron was an abused kid.  Could he have been saved?  Our justice system doesn’t bother to find out.

And people wonder why I’m such a nut for Restoration.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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