National Catholic Register — How Restorative Justice Helped Make the Justice System Work Better in Seattle

by Matthew McDonald
National Catholic Register
March 9, 2022

The Archdiocese of Seattle participated in a pilot program for selected juvenile offenders.

… Peacemaking circles are among a series of diversionary programs in the criminal-justice system that try to break cycles of incarceration by avoiding incarceration. It’s one group’s answer to the question: How do we make the criminal-justice system work better?

The Archdiocese of Seattle participated in a pilot program in King County several years ago. The program centered on selected juvenile offenders, ages 15 to 17, whose crimes were serious enough to warrant detention (the juvenile form of jail) but not serious enough to warrant adult prison.

Intense Sessions

The offender sat in a circle with members of the community affected by what he did — the victim, for starters, if the victim wanted to participate — and a mediator, prosecutors, a judge, probation officers, his family members, and family members of the victim. A typical session drew about 15 people but could balloon to as many as several dozen, said Joe Cotton, director of pastoral care and outreach for the Archdiocese of Seattle who participated in the sessions.

… One crime expert cautions that in order to be effective such approaches must be well-structured and thorough, with a mediator to guide them so they don’t devolve into shouting sessions.

But done properly, such methods foster “the most natural human response to crime — to try to talk things through and resolve the conflict,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Reconnecting people after harm takes time and effort, he said.

“But that’s the whole theme of it: You want to rebond somebody to conventional notions of morality,” Butts said. “You reestablish a human bond, a human perspective. … The whole idea behind restorative justice is to broaden one’s awareness of community and the family of humanity and to have them feel that basic respect for someone.”

Traditional reactions to crime tend to fall into one of two categories: Punish and exact retribution; or use therapy to try to figure out root causes. Restorative justice, Butts said, adds a social dimension that is missing from both.

“It’s a little like bringing this person back into the community. It’s not just about their inner defects. It’s about their sociological connection, their social bonds,” Butts said.

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Experts are considering: How do we make the criminal-justice system work better? (Photo: Unsplash).