News Tip

Restorative Justice in Use

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by Kathie Gourlay

Restorative justice is a process used in situations of conflict and crime where a trained facilitator creates a situation where people feel safe to talk and then guides a discussion between people where there has been conflict or harm. There are a few pre-conditions. First, it is a voluntary process; no one is forced into restorative justice. Second, the person who caused harm must agree that he/she did it. The purpose of restorative justice is to repair the harm and restore broken relationships. Often an agreement is made between the parties as to what the person who caused harm will do to try to repair the harm.

Here are two situations where I know restorative justice has been used, exemplifying the gamut from a small amount of harm to a large amount. A few years ago while traveling I met a man from Canada who is a fan of restorative justice. He told me that his family used it to help repair the rifts that were developing among them while trying to settle a family estate. At the other extreme is restorative justice after a murder. In this case, Conor McBride shot and killed his fiancée in Florida. The parents of both parties comforted each other in the hospital around the dying girl. The prosecutor allowed them to do restorative justice in the jail before sentencing. Present were both sets of parents, Conor, the priest from the victim’s family’s church, the prosecutor, and a trained restorative justice facilitator. There was a lot of pain in the room, but healing took place too as the parties got their questions answered, and expressed their grief and remorse. The mother of the young woman told Conor that in his future he would have to do all the good work that her daughter would have done if she had lived. He agreed to speak to groups about teen-dating violence and he plans to volunteer at an animal shelter when he gets out of prison because that is what his fiancée would do. He received a twenty-year sentence, more than the young lady’s family suggested, but perhaps less than he would have received if the prosecutor had not been at his restorative justice conference.

As of January 2021 Washtenaw County has a new prosecutor, Eli Savit. All three prosecutorial candidates’ platforms included the use of restorative justice. Restorative justice has previously been used by Washtenaw County judges, including judges Connors and O’Brien. Savit is increasing its use by deflecting pre-charge certain types of crimes where there is a harmed person and an identified person who caused the harm. If both parties opt for restorative justice, the case will be deflected; otherwise, it will start its way through the traditional criminal legal system. The restorative justice process will be handled by Washtenaw County’s Dispute Resolution Center. If the parties successfully complete restorative justice, and the person who caused the harm is not accused of another crime during an 18-month period, the charge will not be filed. Otherwise, the case goes back to the prosecutor. This change should provide more repair and healing for all involved than the traditional criminal legal system. It will save money on incarceration costs and will allow the person who caused harm a way to be “redeemed” and to continue in society without a criminal record.

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This column is part of a series created by the Restorative Justice Action Group of Chelsea's One World One Family organization. The series invites readers to reflect on individual and community challenges such as conflict and crime, and the approaches we take to meeting them.

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