By: Elena Richardson, Grants Program Manager for The Fund for Santa Barbara
ACCORDING TO THE INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR PRISON STUDIES, the incarceration rate in U.S. is the highest in the world at 698 per 100,000 people. While the U.S. represents approximately 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses roughly 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.
For over 18 years, Conflict Solutions Center (CSC), formerly Community Mediation Center, has advocated for an alternative model to criminal justice called “Restorative Justice.” Rather than focusing on blame, judgment, and sentencing, restorative justice “shifts from justice as harming to justice as healing,” explained Amber Michelle Jolly, CSC Program Director. “Restorative justice brings together the offender, the victim, and a trained mediator to discuss what harm was caused, who was affected by this harm, and what can be done to repair the harm.”
Last January, Oakland Unified School District expanded its Restorative Justice programs to all 86 of its schools.
For years, CSC has worked to disrupt the “school to prison pipeline” by implementing a system through which restorative justice referrals can come to CSC for case management. Today, referrals come from: parents, teachers, law enforcement, and the District Attorney and Public Defenders’ offices.
This approach reduces recidivism (the percentage of youth who re-offend and re-enter the juvenile justice system) to 16 percent,” according to CSC. “In a recent report, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) indicated the statewide recidivism rate is 61 percent. The report also shows that the recidivism rate is down from 63.7 percent last year, and down from 67.5 percent in 2008.
Currently, restorative justice is part of a growing statewide and national trend, due to hard work over the long haul by organizations like CSC and other advocates for restorative justice. The Fund for Santa Barbara, a progressive community foundation in Santa Barbara County, was one of the earliest funders of this model locally and has supported CSC with grants over the past nine years.
Thanks to the commitment of the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) Superintendent Dr. David Cash and organizations like Just Communities, Alternative to Violence Project, City at Peace and others, SBUSD has piloted restorative justice circles in classrooms throughout local high schools and junior highs. In the first semester of the pilot program, there were 30 percent fewer suspensions at Santa Barbara Junior High School.
Last January, the Oakland Unified School District expanded its restorative justice programs to all 86 of its schools after a school district reported that suspensions dropped by more than 50 percent.
Oakland is not alone. Chicago, Minneapolis, Palm Beach County, and Denver are all now trying some version of the restorative justice approach.
Restorative Justice in Action
Recently, Fund staff sat down with CSC to hear from participants in a recent Restorative Justice circle.
Mr. Iniguez serves as Assistant Principle at Righetti High School in Santa Maria. While diffusing a tense situation, he was hit in the head with an object from afar–an apple. The School District moved forward with disciplinary actions against the student and Mr. Iniguez received a call from CSC notifying him that his case was referred for alternative sentencing.
Sitting down with the student, Mr. Iniguez noted the power of dialogue “The ‘aha’ moment for me was sitting across from one another and simply talking. [The student] didn’t know that I suffered a concussion, or missed work, or that my children were afraid for me,” Mr. Iniguez related.
Together, the two came up with the idea of an art project as restitution. “Since the student is a talented artist we thought he could tutor younger students in art,” Mr. Iniguez shared.
As a result of this process, the families of both the victim and offender were able to heal. The student’s family was expecting an “eye for an eye” form of retribution, a fear which did not transpire.
The student has returned to school and is meeting the terms of his alternative sentencing. “I didn’t agree with his expulsion and was so pleased that he was given this alternative,” said Mr. Iniguez.
This is exactly the kind of experience that “spreads the word and opens people’s eyes about a different way of creating justice,” Jolly concluded.
For more info about Conflict Solutions Center or to volunteer, visit: www.cscsb.org