The Power of Restorative Justice

August 8, 2023 at 3:33 PM
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The Power of Restorative Justice

Zuri Steadman, Brandy Eggan, James Stellar

During the summer of 2022, I (Zuri) worked at Harlem Children’s Zone as a teaching assistant and summer aid. I mostly worked with kindergarteners from underprivileged backgrounds. The children were great, lively and behaved well for the most part, however, there were times when redirection was needed. Sometimes a tantrum occurred, an item was thrown, a fight would break out and some type of behavior modification had to take place to re-center the group and stay on track for the day. As a staff member, it was always my or my coworker’s job to determine the appropriate punishment, and in my experience, these punishments were always punitive. Oftentimes they included verbal confrontations, suspensions or even expulsions from the program in the most extreme cases.

Like the children I worked with, I grew up going to programs just like Harlem Children’s Zone for summer camp or after school and I was familiar with the ways in which children, often from troubled backgrounds, had trouble expressing themselves in productive ways. This trickles into the school system as well and has resulted in something called the pipeline to prison, where students of color are being suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and with that comes a 30% increase in a likelihood of being arrested once and a 51% greater likelihood of being arrested twice. Until we can unlink punitive punishments from youth organizations and schools, we will continue to usher too many underprivileged minority students into jails and prisons.

Before I started this research, I never thought about the big-picture effects of zero-tolerance actions and a need for alternatives to punitive punishment. Rather, I just tried to behave to the best of my ability so I was never stuck in the principal or director’s office and I could keep my mom happy. One thing that I did see with some of my peers, friends, and with the younger students when I was a counselor though was that when it did boil down to a harsh punishment (which may have been warranted), I saw that these practices of punishment, suspension and expulsion worked on the surface but never fully resolved an issue. Moreover, I noticed that some of my classmates or summer program students never returned after being disciplined, even when they were only suspended for a day or two.

This cycle needs to be broken. We, especially children, are not inherently bad. But, that does not mean that we do not have bad days. Punitive punishments remove the responsibility from the authoritarian figure, giving them the easy way out rather than challenging them to find the underlying cause of the issue. Restorative justice (RJ) is an alternative approach to discipline. Restorative practices focus on community, healing from harm, and mutual agreement rather than punitive punishment. The goal is to allow the offender to take accountability and responsibility for the harm and the process allows the voice of the victim and all affected by the harm to be heard, something that is not a possibility in the current criminal legal system. The concept of RJ pulls from community-building indigenous traditions, specifically the Navajo and Maori peoples, that featured restorative circles which allowed the perpetrator/offender to hear from the victim and learn how the harm the perpetrator committed harmed them. After hearing what the victim has to say, the offender gets a chance to explain themselves and any issues they have or have had that may have led them to do what they did, and an opportunity to take accountability for their actions. After accountability is taken the offender and the victim can work together towards rebuilding their relationship and make restitution while having the added benefit of rehabilitating the offender back into the community where they are less likely to reoffend.

This all sounds great, but you might be wondering, does it work? A group made up of Harvard and Colorado Boulder researchers found that students that attend schools with higher suspension rates are 15% to 20% more likely to end up in jail than those who aren’t. And when you account for a recent report by the U.S. Government accountability office that 5.5% of all students in the country are black but represent 39% of students suspended from schools you can see how zero tolerance can have a strong negative impact on groups of people who are already at a high risk for incarceration. Furthermore, according to a 2015 article by Allison Ann Payne and Kelly Welch, a greater percentage of black students decreased a school’s odds of using restorative practices and increased a school’s odds of using punitive zero-tolerance responses to school violations. This shows that there are racial biases when schools discipline their students and RJ could be a tool by which we cut down on these unfair practices.

While the use of RJ especially in predominantly black schools is increasing, we conducted a brief survey of college students and administrators to see if people had actually heard of this practice. 73% of our respondents identified as a race other than white and while approximately half of the respondents had heard of the term “restorative justice”, very few respondents were able to define the term (likely the administrators only). This was surprising to me (Zuri) as the literature shows such promise and implies that these practices are actively being integrated into school discipline systems as administrators seek to lessen the suspension rates of the students they serve. The largest example in particular comes from almost 20 years ago when failing Oakland County middle school in California decided to lean in fully to a restorative justice disciplinary model. Within 3 years of the initial integration, the school experienced an 87% decrease in suspension and a correlating decrease in violence within the school. While Oakland is a leading example, it’s shocking that my peers and myself, students of color, have never heard of this practice until now… and I want to change this.

To do this, I believe we need to integrate the evidence that “it works” with the “why” it works. In a Ted talk by Dan Reisel done in 2013, The Neuroscience of Restorative Justice, he talks about the research he conducted on a group of inmates diagnosed as psychopaths in an attempt to discover the neurological basis for their behavior. Reisel tested these incarcerated subjects and their ability to categorize different images of emotional and physical responses to certain images. The inmates showed little to no physical response to an image of a sad man showing a lack of empathy. During the experiment, Reisel learned that each inmate had a difficult childhood and a deficit in the part of the brain called the amygdala which is thought to be key to the experience of empathy. The larger and more active the amygdala, the more empathetic a person should be. With that, it leads us to the question, can we grow the amygdala in these inmates or does incarceration cripple growth? Moreover, can alternatives to incarceration such as RJ that specifically focuses on accountability and empathy work to promote growth of the amygdala? We will explore these questions and the amygdala in Blog 2 of 3 of this series. 

The amygdala, anxiety, and college student decision-making

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