Law professor says ‘restorative justice’ can heal

Dec. 06, 2012 @ 07:52 PM

Bringing crime victims face-to-face with their offenders to share their stories can increase understanding and healing, according to a law professor who leads a program designed to do that.

Jon Powell, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at Campbell University, shared his thoughts about “restorative justice” Thursday at a meeting of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

To illustrate how communication can make a profound difference in people’s lives, Powell showed a video of interviews with a young couple whose home was broken into while they were gone and the two teens who did it.

Through mediation, the boys said they came to realize how deeply they hurt the couple, who suffered anger and fear after the break-in. In turn, the couple said talking face-to-face helped them to understand the boys’ actions, and they eventually forgave them.

The result is that the youths avoided jail, and the victims gained peace of mind.

That’s exactly the outcome Powell works for through the Juvenile Justice Project, which he’s been involved in since 2003.

“We have a system that focuses on punishment,” Powell said in an interview before his presentation at Shepherds House United Methodist Church on Driver Street. “Our traditional legal system focuses on punishing the offender. Unfortunately, what is left out of the system is the ability to really focus on the victim and communities that have been hurt by crime.”

By bringing all sides together, he said, victims can better understand “what happened, why it happened, and do tangible things that address that harm and put things as right as possible.”

Mediation is a key tool, with face-to-face meetings between offender and victim.

“When people are hurt by crime, there needs to be more than one response to help them heal,” Powell said. “Simply finding an offender guilty is rarely enough to put the victim back in a whole piece like they were before.”

But what can the average person do to help a crime victim?

“Listen to them,” Powell said. “Don’t assume that we know what they need. That’s one thing that our system of justice does now – it assumes that we know what they need. But every individual is different, and every crime creates different needs.”

Powell said the best way to approach a victim is with an “open mind and listening ear.”

The Juvenile Justice Project gets many referrals from the juvenile courts and local schools.

“We do restorative justice work mostly in criminal cases where we’re helping offenders and victims come together,” he said. “We do more conflict resolution within the schools where kids are in conflicts that ultimately would lead to suspension or arrest.”

Powell said fewer people re-offend if they go through the program – between 5 percent and 15 percent.

“But I think the statistic that is more telling is for kids who were referred to our program but never had the face-to-face meeting with the person they offended,” he said. “Those re-offense rates were about three times as high as the ones who came into the program” and completed the face-to-face meetings.

“That indicates to me that once you sit down and understand how you’ve hurt somebody, it will change your future behavior.”

“If we can help [young people] take responsibility for themselves, and help them hold themselves accountable, I think it will change their behavior,” Powell said. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Powell said crime victims aren’t required to forgive their offenders, but that doing so helps.

“My experience has been that if a victim can forgive, they reach a higher level of healing,” he said. “It can make a tremendous difference.”