The traditional model of criminal justice in the US isolates those who commit criminal acts from both survivors and society and the social support networks that could support their healing and reintegration. At the same time, those who suffer harm are often left without closure and understanding about the harm that took place. On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, guest Jenifer Lee-Gonyea, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and associate professor of criminology at Mount Saint Mary’s College, discusses the restorative model of criminal justice. Restorative justice approaches harm as an opportunity to engage in inclusive healing for those who experienced harm and those who caused it through mediation, honest dialogue, and accountability. The episode also examines restorative justice as policy at various levels of government and how the tools could be used to address broader societal ills, such as persistent racial injustice.


Jenifer Lee-Gonyea, Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government, and Associate Professor of Criminology, Mount Saint Mary’s College

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:00

    Welcome to Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. When we think of justice, we tend to think of the traditional criminal justice model, where the state serves as the mediator and determines if someone committed a crime and what their punishment will be. My guest today, Dr. Jenifer Lee-Gonyea, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and associate professor of criminology at Mount Saint Mary College in New York, suggests that the criminal justice system might not be the best model for healing and ultimately reintegrating members back into society, and that restorative justice may be better suited for community restoration as opposed to retribution. We will learn more about what restorative justice is and also talk about how restorative justice could be used to address long lasting societal wrongs, such as slavery, and how that plays into today’s current environment of civil and social unrest. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 0:58

    I’m joined today by Dr. Jenifer Lee-Gonyea, who is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and associate professor of criminology at Mount Saint Mary College in New York. Jenifer’s research focuses on the teachings and use of restorative justice, with more recent interests centering on its availability to racial and ethnic minorities and women, as well as its applicability for addressing serious harms. Jenifer, thank you for joining me today.

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 1:13

    Thank you for having me.

    Alexander Morse 1:13

    So this is certainly a timely conversation and we’ll get into that in a little bit. But to start, can you please explain to listeners what restorative justice is?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 1:21

    So for me, restorative justice is a way of thinking about harm, and crime is a version of harm, that doesn’t exclude people. That it sees it as a way to get at real healing. It seeks to do that by involving all the relevant stakeholders. It wants to have input from those who were harmed, from those who caused the harm, and then for any other person who was impacted. And to me, it is a fundamentally and philosophically different approach to thinking about harm or crime than what is traditionally done in the United States or in a lot of places in the world. So it is about justice, but it isn’t about the justice that we typically think about when we think about the criminal justice system. It is inclusive. It is meant to be restorative. It is meant to be healing. But it is not meant to be without accountability or responsibility. I think that is something that maybe gets lost sometimes when we start talking about restorative justice. So that’s what it is to me. That’s how I approach it. That’s how I learned it. And that’s how I try to pay it forward when I teach it with my students.

    Alexander Morse 3:25

    Okay, so then what are some of the principles and practices that guide how these goals are actually achieved?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 3:32

    Restorative justice wants to do this in a way where it can be as inclusive as possible. And there are different ways that it can do that. There are different types of programs and practices that can be used with respect to restorative justice. I think that probably what is most commonly known is victim/offender mediation, where you have the victim and the offender, or the person who experienced the harm and the person who caused the harm, come together with a mediator to talk about what was experienced, what was done, why it was done, and what are some possible resolutions to that harm. I think that how it separates itself from a traditional model is that it is really about truth and openness and honesty, and like real honesty not the manufactured modest honesty that you get when you’re in a courtroom or a criminal justice setting. So it wants to put people who are impacted by a particular harm in the same space and in that space, work through and share what has happened, how that has impacted people, and what are some ways that we can get to a resolution or repair or in some ways a restoration. It is about the victim and their families, the offender and their families. It’s about community members. It’s about being as big a tent or as big a circle as possible, so that everyone has a voice in the process. By doing that, you are very likely to get at real truth. Then from that, real resolution because I don’t think that you can get at real resolution unless you have real truth. I don’t think that you can get at real truth until you’re able to dialogue in a way that is productive. And restorative justice wants to do all of that.

    Alexander Morse 5:40

    Alright, so I’m picturing a room where folks are gathered together discussing what had happened and what needs to be done for justice, something like a peer mediation. Am I right to be thinking that or is it something different?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 5:54

    No, in all of the different types of formats that this can take, ideally, you would have people who were sitting in a safe space, a neutral space, to the degree possible, really, with guidance, with mediators, with people who are trained facilitators, guiding them into a dialogue with each other to get at what was done, why it was done, how the people are feeling, who were impacted by this. And it literally is, in some instances, people sitting in a circle. Like when you have tables, there’s always like the head of the table, the end of the table, and the sides. But here, everybody is equal. So everybody sits in a circle. There’s nobody that’s in charge, there’s just facilitators, but they really do sit together in an attempt to get at what was done in a way that ends in not just people expressing grief or expressing sadness or anger, but in a way to communicate their feelings and to then receive information from the person who caused that harm, about why they did it. In the end, what you end up with, I think, are groups of people who come out of that experience for the better and who have learned something about each other in a meaningful way. So ideally, what you have is the people who caused the harm will come out of those meetings, those conferences, the circles, the mediations, the boards, having learned something about what they’ve done in an effort to not repeat that behavior. And then the people who have experienced that harm will come out of those experiences having felt like they were able to communicate what they experienced, openly and honestly and in a meaningful way, in an effort to help that person understand their experiences but also to have that person not repeat those experiences. What you have is a way for the people who experienced the harm to get their needs met in a way that they can’t really get them met in the traditional system. But honestly, you also get people who have caused that harm having their needs met, which is something we don’t often talk about, because we don’t often want to accept that people who cause harm have needs and that we can do something about meeting those needs that’s beneficial for everybody. So it is exactly what you’re picturing, where you have a room with people and there is a facilitator. You have each person sharing their stories with other people in an effort to just come out better at the end.

    Alexander Morse 8:44

    So following up on the point you made about focusing on the needs of the person who committed the harm or caused the harm. Under a criminal justice lens, retribution tends to be punitive. There may also be a rehabilitative factor, but in large part, the concept is to take people out of society. How else is restorative justice different from criminal justice?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 9:08

    So the traditional system is really about what law was broken? Who broke that law? And then what do they deserve? That’s typically how our system works. So if you look at police, courts, and corrections, they are working in tangent with trying to figure out what law was broken, who did it, and then we have mechanisms in place to decide what punishment is deserving of that action. That’s what we call accountability in the traditional system: you are caught, you are sanctioned, you are punished. That’s justice. That is one definition of justice. But in restorative justice, it really is about looking at what harm was committed, what needs arise from that harm, and then whose obligation it is to address those needs. It is not devoid of accountability and responsibility. It just is a different form of accountability and responsibility. It is not devoid even of punitive measures. There are sentencing circles that are restorative justice practices, which their sole purpose is to come up with, that’s again in dialogue with all appropriate parties, an appropriate sentence for a harm that was done or a crime that was committed. So restorative justice isn’t devoid of punitive measures. It’s just not the focus of restorative justice like I believe it is in the traditional system. When I teach this to my students, we get into a lot of discussion in class about how restorative justice can work with the traditional system, and it can, and it does, with various levels of success, I would say. But I don’t think that at its core, restorative justice is punitive in nature. I think that at its core, it’s reparative. It is restorative. It is healing. And I think that’s one of the biggest ways that it is distinct from a traditional model, because there’s very little that I can see in the traditional model, that would not be about being punitive or seeking retribution.

    Alexander Morse 11:18

    Hold that thought on accountability because we’ll return to that. But I want to note that you are using person-first terms, person who experienced the harm versus victim, person who caused the harm versus offender. I’m guessing this is because you want to avoid using labels. So why is that important?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 11:38

    This is relatively new. When I was coming through graduate school, it was victim, it was offender. But recently, there’s been discussion about moving from victim to survivor. So we won’t call people victims of rape, we’ll call them survivors of rape. And I think that you’re right, it is about how those words are charged and how they come with preconceived ideas about what that means for a particular person or what that means about a particular person. In restorative justice, and really in justice studies and in criminology, there’s been an awakening. I’m not going to call it a reckoning, that’s a whole different thing. But I think there’s been an awakening to the power of labels and the power of language. When you call someone a criminal, a felon, or an offender that comes attached with a lot of negative connotations and it doesn’t leave, I don’t think, space or room to accept that people are capable of change or capable of growth. I think that if you say to someone, “this is a person who caused harm to another person, or who harmed another person,” that’s immediately relatable because we’ve all caused harm to another person. Perhaps not to the degree of the person that we’re talking about but there is no person who has not hurt someone in some way. Therefore, I think you become immediately relatable in that sense. I think that from moving from victim to the person who experienced something or survivor, you are, again, allowing them to shed the stigma or shed the negative label or the connotations that come with being a victim. It’s empowering. It’s allowing them to have the power and take the power back and to say, “I’m not going to be defined by this thing that I experienced or this thing that happened to me.”

    Alexander Morse 13:43

    I like what you just said, I’m not going to be defined by this experience or what I’ve done. Because when we do use those labels, for example, X person is a criminal, we’ve reduced them to that one act. Meanwhile, really, they’re just as human as you and I are. They go grocery shopping or get stuck in traffic and the like. I see why it’s important to be relatable because that’s how you bridge divides and communicate honestly with one another. Returning to accountability and quote unquote, justice being served, what are some of the other challenges or misunderstandings rather that people have about restorative justice?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 14:27

    So I think that some of the biggest misunderstandings, I’ll just use what tends to come up in classes when I start talking about it, is that my students and also some family members I’ve talked to about restorative justice think that it’s soft, it’s light. It’s letting the person off the hook. It’s not holding them accountable. Those are really big barriers that we have to bridge and get over in terms of being able adjust and start talking about what restorative justice is. We have to tell people, “Well, it isn’t devoid of accountability. It’s just a different level and a different type of accountability than what we grew up with.” I remember when I was growing up, I actually should say, I don’t remember when I was growing up hearing anything about restorative justice. I heard a lot about police and law and jail and prison but I didn’t hear anything about restorative justice. So when you grow up learning about a particular type of accountability and a particular type of justice, that’s what you understand. That’s what you believe. That’s what you buy into. So it’s really hard to convince people to open their minds just a little bit to different definitions of justice and different types of accountability. What I often say in class is that if you’ve ever had to sit across from someone that you’ve hurt in any way, big or small, and you’ve had to explain to them why you did what you did, and you have offered a real apology, and you’ve had to listen to them come back at you, explaining all the reasons that this is really hard for them and all the ways that your actions impacted them. You think that is easy? Then I’m not sure what to say to that because it is one of the hardest things to do is to own up to your mistakes and own up to what you’ve done to another person that’s caused them any measure or matter of pain. To me, it’s one of the hardest things to do. But if you can do that then you end up in a better place, not just with yourself but with that other person. I think that it’s then having to dispel the myth that it is just an apology. And it doesn’t have to be met with anything that’s sincere or any other kind of things. Like, okay, you’re just going to put two people in a room one who caused harm, one who experienced it. One is going to say, I’m sorry and then we’re good. That’s a really dismissive way to think about it. And it’s not at all the way that it works. In order for people to just to get to that space, there has to be an acknowledgment that you caused the harm. There has to be a willingness to admit that you did that thing to the person who’s in that room. You have to be willing to hear everything that they’re going to say to you. And to take that. I think that once we start talking about what that means, then people start seeing, “okay, well, yeah, that would be really challenging to do. Yeah, but like, we can’t just let people do things and then just walk out on the street.” Okay, that’s fair. But that’s not how it works, either. I think that we have a lot of preconceived ideas about justice and the role of the system that we have to work through for people, for them to be able to see that there is benefit to these programs and there’s benefit to this system. And that if you actually look at what victims want, if we purport to be about doing the victims will, and doing what victims want, and giving justice to the victim, then we also should be listening to what the victims actually want. If you talk to victims and you ask them what they want, they want to know why it happened. They want to know why they were selected. They want to be able to tell the person, this is what you did to me, this is how it impacted me, but this will not define me. Your actions don’t define me. They want to know why. They want to have that kind of peace and you can’t get that in the traditional system. Once you start talking to people and putting the focus on survivors in what they want and in their own words listening to what survivors are saying then you start to make a little bit of inroads. But it is, I think, the biggest misconception is that this is soft on crime and this is just easy, and we’re just going to sit around and we’re going to hug and we’re going to sing, we’re going to have no accountability, and nobody’s going to be held responsible. That’s not true at all. Being in that program, in that space, is holding you responsible and is allowing for a level of accountability that isn’t possible in other institutions and other models.

    Alexander Morse 19:20

    Thanks for highlighting some of the main points of restorative justice and how it differs from the traditional criminal justice model. So let’s move on to its use in the United States. Are there any cities or states that have implemented successful restorative justice programs?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 19:38

    That is a really interesting and yet challenging question to answer because there are as many versions of restorative justice programs and policies as there are people in various counties. There are people who will interpret restorative justice one way and then that’s how they will go and try to implement programs. There are people who will look at it differently and then they’ll implement them that way. I do know that there are states that are making moves to introduce more and more restorative justice. For example, in Vermont, they are making a commitment to restorative justice for juveniles, which a lot of places will do because that’s an easy sell to people. We tend to be more forgiving and lenient for young people who do things than adults who do things. You’ll see a lot of programs and policies that are targeted towards young people. And I would argue, that’s a good thing, but we also need to focus on adults too. But Vermont actually is making a lot of laws and policies where they are requiring that certain types of offenses and certain types of offenders must be addressed through the use of restorative justice. That’s a statewide policy. And it is, I think, a model for what other states could do. I think that Vermont has a particular stereotype, maybe, about it that’s a little bit more laid back, a little bit more easygoing. But I think Vermont is very much receptive to the ideas of restorative justice and wanting not to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline or mass incarceration, which are real issues. I know that Vermont has been trying in their laws that there are certain types of offenders and offenses that must be addressed through restorative justice, and to what I know about that, that is working the way that they would like it to work. But measures of success are going to vary. So do people not commit that same offense again? Do people not get rearrested again? Do people not get reconvicted again? There are all these different measures of success and it really is a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and state-by-state issue. I know that in California, there are places in, I think, the Bay Area that are using restorative justice a great deal. I believe that in LA, they’re using restorative justice a lot in their K-12 schools. So you’re seeing a lot of restorative justice being used in addressing issues that happened in the K-12 system. I know that Minnesota has been pretty big on restorative justice, they’ve had a lot of researchers coming out of that area that are focusing on restorative justice. I know that New York is making some attempts to use restorative justice more and more. It’s just that when it comes to doing it statewide, there just really aren’t a lot of models and forget about talking about that on a federal level. That’s a whole other level and layer. Ideally, what you would want is some nationwide agreement that this is what’s going to happen and this is how it’s going to be implemented. But because we have 50 states with 50 different ways that they can do it, you end up with 50 different ways or more that restorative justice becomes implemented or not. Then there are other states where it’s going to be an uphill battle to get restorative justice incorporated in a real way.

    Alexander Morse 23:10

    So based on what you’re saying is that the growth of restorative justice will be dependent upon localities running successful programs, serving as a model for neighboring municipalities.

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 23:25

    I think that people who are supportive of restorative justice and believe in what it can do are very aware of how we have to sell it to other people. So we start small and we see success defined in a way where that person doesn’t do that thing again. We call that a success. But it doesn’t come without other things being needed. What you have in restorative justice is a community commitment and community involvement too. The community is going to come in, they’re going to have a role, and they’re going to say, “this is how you hurt us.” But the community also has a responsibility to prevent it from happening again. You can’t participate in a restorative justice program as a community member and then when that program is over, just throw your hands up and say I did my bit. In order for success to be sustained and to be long-term, you have to have community involvement that is sustained and long-term. That is a part of restorative justice that I think we don’t talk a lot about, but I think that it is incredibly important is that community involvement. If we can find and talk about success at the community level, at the city level, at the county level, and then we can get neighboring counties to jump in and then we get other counties to jump in, then maybe we can start to convince lawmakers that this is worth it. Not worth it just in the financial sense, because we tend to judge things by how much money it costs versus how much money it saves, rather than looking at what the benefit is for all the people involved. I think that if we start small and we can get it up to the county level, and it goes county to county, then maybe we can have statewide conversations about making a Vermont plan where we have agreed that across the state this is how we’re going to deal with certain things. And then if New York were to do it, which is a huge, influential, noteworthy type of state, we can get other states to start to buy in and then we can get other states to start to buy in. It’s still going to be a challenge in some states. But I think that if enough people start to see the benefit of restorative justice just in terms of reducing the school-to-prison pipeline, reducing in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions. Reducing the number of people who get caught into the criminal justice net, reducing the number of people who end up in the criminal justice system, because once you’re in that system, it’s so hard to get out. If we start to see these people that would have otherwise been incarcerated, making real contributions to their community and to their families and to their schools and to their neighborhoods, then I think that people will start to listen. And I don’t think that’s as hard as I’m making it sound. I think I’m making it sound like this is a lot of work. It is work. But I don’t think that it’s necessarily as hard as it would have been let’s say five years ago.

    Alexander Morse 26:37

    So far, we’ve talked about restorative justice in a localized sense, there’s a particular incident between people of a community and how justice can be achieved through a form of mediation. But what about in a greater far reaching systematic sense, greater societal wrongs like slavery? How can the United States and the people who live here atone for its larger impacts?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 27:07

    That to me is what’s drawn my attention lately is how can we use this as a way to address these serious, long-lasting harms like slavery? I think that it could work. I think that what it would take is a nationwide recognition that it was needed. I think that where we are right now, in this national moment of reckoning about racial injustice and racism, that this is a really good moment to start having these conversations. I think that people are ready to hear about the legacy of slavery in terms of all the parts of life that have been impacted for African Americans in the country. I think that, really, what I’m proposing and borrowing from other people who have said similar things is setting up what was used in South Africa, which are truth and reconciliation commissions, and setting them up in different places in the country and just having all of the necessary people present. That includes people who have the power to make real change and systemic change. So that’s going to involve policymakers and lawmakers, legislators, district attorneys, police commissioners, governors, senators, it’s going to involve all of these people, but it’s also going to involve community members in those areas, to be able to talk about and point out things that we know now, things that we’ve known for a long time in terms of housing issues, education issues, legal issues, family issues, community issues, and how all of these are traced back to slavery and, that point in time, post-slavery where these policies were put in place. I think that restorative justice has the power to offer people space to share their stories. It offers people a space to hear those stories and to ask legitimate questions and to get real answers in a safe way. So restorative justice isn’t about sitting people down and having them go at each other and yell at each other without any kind of program or policy or facilitator in place. But I do think that restorative justice has the ability to get at the real hurt and the pain that people are experiencing as a result of slavery, and to allow the people who have benefited from those policies to hear that in a real way. I think that it requires people to be open and receptive to that. So obviously, this is not going to be something that everybody’s going to be willing to participate in for various reasons. Not every African American is going to want to come and share their pain in an open forum. Not every person who’s benefited from these policies are going to want to come and hear about the pain and the suffering. But I think that we’re at a moment right now where we are in a place where people are willing to listen and like really listen, like not dismiss, diminish, overtalk, or minimize in any way but to actually listen. That is part of what is at restorative justice. It is to be able to share but to be able to hear. To be able to talk about your experiences, talk about your pain, but ultimately seek a solution and a resolution. I think that with something like truth and reconciliation commissions or another way to think about it would be like community reparation boards, where we have all these community members coming in. We are going to talk about this and we’re going to end by having a plan. I think that by allowing people space, what you’re doing is you’re telling them that I hear you, I see you, what you’re talking about is real. It’s not something that we can diminish or minimize. It gives other people the opportunity to go, “I had no idea that it was this deep and this bad. And I should have listened when I had the chance. But I’m here now. Let’s work together to figure out how we can solve this.” I think the solutions are big. They’re big solutions because this is a big problem. I think that your solutions have to match the harm. I think the harm and the legacy of slavery is such that what we’re talking about in terms of a resolution is going to be big and systemic and institutional and costly. And that isn’t a reason to not do it.

    Alexander Morse 32:28

    I like what you said about having the conversation be an open dialogue. People really do need to be honest about what has happened and what impacts exist today. Because if we don’t, we risk any attempt at resolution or justice. You had mentioned briefly the use of community reparations boards. I’m not familiar with those in particular, but when I hear the term reparations, generally, it means a monetary payment to the descendants of slaves. You’re likely to hear pushback on that concept from a variety of folks for a variety of reasons. But with that in mind, how can we think about reparations and what they might look like under restorative justice?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 33:13

    There was some research that was done, I want to say, that came out in the late 90s, early 2000s. It talked about things that victims wanted. One of the things that they found that victims wanted was emotional restoration and material reparation. For victims who are victims of property crimes, what they wanted was some type of monetary or material amends, some type of restoration, reparations for what was lost or damaged. I think that when we’re talking about slavery and we’re talking about the legacy of slavery and we’re talking about reparations, there is immense pushback from some people about the idea of providing economic or material reparations to the descendants of slaves. They give various reasons for that pushback. How could you possibly do it? How could we afford it? How would it work? And to me, those are excuses and the wrong questions to ask. You can make it work, just like we make any type of large scale payment to people who have suffered harm. You can make it work if you want to make it work. But I don’t think that financial or economic reparations are the only types of reparations that would be applicable here, even under the restorative justice umbrella. Restorative justice doesn’t shy away from those type of amends or reparations, but it is not the only thing that could be provided. So when I talked earlier about what would be needed would be big institutional systemic change that is a way that you also get at making amends, providing reparations to those who are descendants of slaves. I think you look at the policies that you have in place. I think that you look at amending them in ways that would account for and address that legacy. I think that if you’re looking at economics, you look at your economic policies. But then when you do that, you’re looking at all types of other things. So you’re looking at employment, you’re looking at hiring, you’re looking at recruitment, you’re also looking at education, which is huge. When we start looking at education funding and you start looking at how that’s proportioned out, you start to see that there are fundamental differences in locations in terms of funding. Overall, we need to look at how we’re funding our K-12 system. But we also need to do a deep dive into looking at those communities that are communities of color, particularly descendants of people who were slaves in this country. We need to adjust that funding. So that’s one way that you have a financial commitment, but you’re also making an investment in the lives of those children, so that their eventual economic earning potential is higher than it would be otherwise. It’s about making housing policy changes, so that you have better housing for those communities that are full of people who are descendants of slaves and who are suffering in that way. I think that you have to look wholesale across all aspects of life and see that there is no aspect of life really that hasn’t been impacted by slavery for those of us who are descendants of slaves. And we have to make our reparations, our amends, in kind to that harm and to that legacy. I think that restorative justice would say that you have to look at what is needed. You have to look at whose obligation it is to meet those needs and then we have to make a plan to meet those needs. I think that you have really smart people in this country, you have people who have thought a great deal about the different ways that reparations can play out, and I think that if we were to just take time, have dialogue, but be serious about making those amends, that we can do it.

    Alexander Morse 37:31

    It almost calls back to an earlier part of our conversation about how the success of restorative justice will be dependent on its success at lower levels before it’s adopted more prominently. A state may have to start by implementing fair banking policies and fair housing policies. I mean, at the federal level, we’ve just witnessed the Trump administration actually rolled back housing policies that were intended to help low-income families afford homes. And that can expressly disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities.

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 38:01

    We can’t rely on the federal government to make these changes, which is why you see a lot of the more inclusive progressive kind of ideas coming at the state level or the local level. I think that’s probably the best way to go about it right now is to look at making it at the state level, and state leadership, looking at all the different tools that they have. Restorative justice is one of those for sure. But there being a real commitment and I think that’s the other thing that’s crucial is that you have to have people who believe that slavery has a legacy. That emancipation did not mean equal or fair or justice and that we have not paid attention in the way that we should have paid attention to where we started to see the legacy of slavery showing up. We’ve had clues across time about the legacy in terms of access to education, access to safe housing, access to voting, access to safe communities, access to equal pay. They’re all of these markers that we’ve had across time to let us know that slavery and its legacy was still here. And we have just been ignoring those. Restorative justice comes along and says, “you’ve got people who are hurting and you’ve got people and systems that are responsible. We need to repair that harm. We need to stop that harm and here’s a way that we could potentially do that.” People, I think, shy away because it is such a big ask. It’s such a big thing and it’s been going on for so long that it often, I think, becomes, where do we start? Because nobody knows where to start, nobody ever starts. Then it just keeps going on and on and on. I think that it’s going to take a brave soul or some brave souls to say, “We have a plan and we’re going to do this plan. We’re going to invite all these people to contribute, so that we understand exactly the nature of this harm. So we can do as much as we can to make it as right as possible.” That’s what restorative justice wants to do. It’s never going to be all right, but it can be better. It can be as right as it could be. But it has to be about people who believe that this is a thing. It requires people to let go of any of these notions that it’s just a matter of working really hard. It’s just a matter of being smart and being capable. And it isn’t any of those things. It’s about access and opportunity. We can’t get those things without addressing why we can’t get those things. I think that restorative justice does have a role to play. I think that it is far better to be inclusive and open and allow people who want to help to come and help and who want to listen to come and listen. I think through that we make long-lasting sustainable change. At least I hope.

    Alexander Morse 41:33

    You had mentioned earlier that in our current climate that people now may be ready to listen, folks are speaking out more. We’ve seen social and civil unrest unfolding in the streets, protests across the country, stemming especially from the killing of George Floyd. So changing gears just a little bit and putting the focus on today, we’ve been hearing the politically charged term ‘defund the police,’ which invokes an aspect of criminal justice reform. Could you tell us what defund the police might mean or look like under the restorative justice lens?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 42:12

    I think that for restorative justice, or my view of restorative justice, it would mean a reduction in the amount of money that is provided to police to do things that really police probably should not be doing. That could be handled by other people in better ways, with less lethal consequences or less CJS contact consequences. I think for me that would mean providing more funds into restorative justice programs and practices, and really taking account of what you’re funding police to do, and what you’re asking police to do, and what they’re best suited to do. For me, it is not necessarily about the complete abolition of police. But it is about reframing what they do and how they do it. It’s about involving other people in situations that are better trained, better equipped, and more willing to do that type of work. I think that police do have a role to play. But I think that what we’re seeing right now is that their involvement in some interactions just escalates the situation. Where I think that other entities would deescalate the situation. I think that restorative justice is a way to resolve conflict and resolve harm but to do it in a way where you’ve got trained facilitators, trained people, and you’re going to have people walk away from that situation feeling like they’ve been heard, feeling like they’ve been respected, and feeling that they can trust those people when they show up. To me, it’s just simply about looking at what we’re spending money on in terms of law enforcement and reallocating it in a way that is going to lead to what we want, which is less harm, less conflict, and safe resolution of that harm and of that conflict when it does happen.

    Alexander Morse 44:32

    I really appreciate your time here today, Jenifer. This was a robust conversation that approaches some new depths. And as we talked about, while it might make people uncomfortable, people may be ready to listen and have these conversations. And so, before you go, I just wanted to ask one last question. Is there anything else you want listeners to know about restorative justice?

    Jenifer Lee-Gonyea 44:56

    For people who are new to restorative justice, or may have come across it in a New York Times article or a USA Today mention, I don’t think that they really get at the essence of what is restorative justice, which is this idea that we are all connected and we are all part of this human community. When one of us does something to another one of us, it is a fracture in that relationship. It is our obligation to meet that fracture and to address that fracture, for the benefit of healing. I think that that is an essential concept that, when people first hear that concept, they think that it’s a little squishy, or kind of hippyish or whatever, kind of like kumbaya, they want to attach the label to. But I think that it’s essential to believe and to accept that we are all connected and that we are all in this thing together. That when one of us is harmed all of us are harmed. It’s going to take all of us to address that harm. I think that’s an essential theme to restorative justice that we can’t address the harm and we can’t address the fracture in the relationship, if we don’t believe that we have that connection and that we have that relationship. Or if we don’t believe that it’s worth addressing in a way that doesn’t involve the punitive side of the criminal justice system and evolving the criminal justice system, because that sets into motion a whole set of other issues that really reinforces pulling people out of the communities where their support system is or pulling them into a system that is not going to support them later on and that it’s really hard to get out of. If we can accept and believe and understand that we really are all connected in that we are a series of our relationships, that when one of us is harmed then it’s our obligation, our need to address that harm, and to address it in a way that is productive and useful and compassionate and understanding and seeks to bring in all the people who need to be included. You don’t really get that in the criminal justice system because the state assumes responsibility. We’re left to the devices of the people who are in charge of that system and they have a different set of priorities. It isn’t the priority of getting at why it happened, just that you did it. They don’t care that these things are going on in your life or these things are going on in your community, they just care that you did the thing that’s against the law and they feel they have an obligation. And this is the only way that we can deal with it. It’s like when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. So it’s like that. We need to take a step back and look at what do we really want to have accomplished when somebody violates a norm or hurts another person in these variety of ways? Do we really want to remove them and put them into a system that isn’t designed to help them and that they’re going to come out worse for the wear? Or do we want to have a system in place that allows them to see what they did, hear what they did, understand it, account for it, but then at the same time be able to say, this is my situation, this is my story. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. I think that that’s deserving of being heard. I wanted to make sure that we were able to get that heard and understood. I think that when you talk to people about that there’s usually this moment in this pause where they’re thinking, “Okay, well, okay, okay, like so maybe, but it isn’t. It isn’t.” I don’t think it’s beneficial to anybody involved to not see this as being related and interconnected. And owing to each other the ability to make things as right as possible. But not in a way that’s going to just reproduce and replicate more violence and more harm. So we end up in this perpetual cycle, where we can’t really get out of, which is what we’re in now. We have millions, literally millions, of people who are in the criminal justice system. I would not think that any of them think that they are better off than if they had had the ability just to have someone listen to them and to take into account their history, their story, their own trauma, their own victimization, and not use it as an excuse but to use it as a way to figure out what is the best next step.

    Alexander Morse 50:21

    Thanks again to Dr. Jenifer Lee-Gonyea for coming on to today’s show to discuss what restorative justice is and how it can be used to involve those who have a stake in a specific offense and find resolution through needs and obligations, which can be better suited to help build up and strengthen communities. Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 51:02

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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