I spent a couple of hours recently with Dominic Barter, a former school teacher who has pioneered a form of restorative justice known as restorative circles. And I came away encouraged about the prospects for Rochester.
Restorative justice is not about punishing the perpetrator of a crime — though it can and often does take place in tandem with punitive measures. The idea is to heal the rift between the parties directly impacted by an act, but more than that, it acknowledges that the insult goes beyond those people. The very fabric of the community is damaged by criminal acts and attention must be given to that wound, as well.
Restorative justice is not about mollycoddling criminals, and I do believe it can work in Rochester. I can hear cynics saying that a 20-year-old intent on shooting someone is not going to drop his gun and run to pour his heart out to friends and neighbors instead.
But imagine having a meeting space in every neighborhood, where a mother can bring her young child when he or she gets involved in minor scrapes — a fight, bullying, maybe shoplifting. That child must face the person he directly hurt, and also learns that there are consequences for his or her actions, and that the damage caused by the act ripples out.
“You hit the nail on the head,” said John Klofas, professor of criminal justice at RIT, when I shared my thoughts with him this morning. “There’s a very big place for that kind of thing here.”
Klofas also explained how many small acts are either dismissed or ignored by the criminal justice system, and the young person skates by sans consequences until boom! His record builds up and then the hammer comes down. Having a restorative system means there’s continuity, Klofas said: action equals consequence.
I just don’t think we can continue our current pattern, which is to ride out the trends until we hit a rough patch, and then flood the city with cops. It’s purely reactive, and it’s not working.