Healthy Healing or Cop Out: Can Restorative Justice Help Curb Juvenile Crime?

It should go without saying that criminal activity is a detriment to society. Most people who don’t live in Thunderdome or one of the 12 Districts of Panem would likely agree that criminal activity destabilizes communities and its perpetrators should be caught and tried in a court of law.

But the conversation becomes cloudier when those perpetrating crimes are under the age of 18. The cause of their delinquency could be anything from poverty, drugs and gangs to abuse, mental illness or bad parenting. We’re not here to debate the cause of juvenile delinquency. 

But what should we do with these young perpetrators? Perhaps the biggest question being debated right now is whether or not juvenile delinquents should be tried as adults

Consider these facts from the Campaign for Youth Justice before you answer:

  • As many as 250,000 youth are prosecuted as adults every year;
  • Around 10,000 children are held every night in adult jails and prisons across America;
  • Juveniles tried and convicted as adults are 32 percent more likely to commit crimes in the future, as compared those adjudicated in the juvenile justice system for the same crimes.  

These stats suggest that adjudicating kids in the adult system simply creates more adult criminals.

Sooooo … adjudicate them in the juvenile justice system and if they’re found delinquent, put them in juvenile detention centers, right? Wait.

On any given day in America, up to 70,000 kids are housed in juvenile detention facilities, corrections facilities, group homes or shelters. Those most likely to commit additional crimes before trial are housed in one of the nation’s 591 juvenile detention centers.

The realities with this option are alarming:

  • Around 25 percent of all juvenile detention centers had either reached or exceeded capacity by 2004;
  • Approximately 12 percent of youth housed in juvenile facilities reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another youth or facility staff in the past 12 months.

These stats suggest that adjudicating kids in the kid system could see them packed together like sardines and being targeted by the worst class of predator.

So what’s the solution?

What if there was a way to stop juvenile offenders before they commit more serious crimes? What if we turned away from incarceration and instead focused on recuperation? Community leaders and schools districts across America are turning to a new trend that just might provide the answers to these questions: restorative justice.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is based on an age-old technique borrowed from the indigenous cultures of North America, Australia and New Zealand. The process, as we know it today, began in the 1990s as an alternative form of dispute resolution in community centers. It is a form of “community justice” in which offenders are offered forgiveness in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes, accountability for their actions, apologies and acts of restitution. 

The process brings together the victims and the accused to discuss what happened, why it happened and, most importantly, how to handle such situations in the future without violence.

For schools in which restorative justice programs are being used, discussing the causes of and potential remedies to violent activity is incredibly important. Most of the programs have been installed in school districts in which gang activity is rampant – see Chicago Public Schools and the Oakland Unified School District for examples.  

But before you go thinking that restorative justice is an urban phenomenon, communities like Ypsilanti (Mich.) and Longmont (Colo.) have found success in homegrown programs.

At a glance, restorative justice might just seem like people talking. Those taking part in the program can often be seen sitting in a circle, discussing the issue at hand. But the process goes much deeper than a simple conversation.

The ultimate goal of restorative justice is to create a safe environment in which conflicting parties can share experiences, understand each others’ perspective and ultimately achieve a sense of justice that is meaningful and lasting.

In schools, one of the main benefits of a restorative justice program is that it keeps kids from being suspended, expelled and, in some cases, dropping out altogether. The idea is that curbing antisocial behavior now will protect the person from delving into a life of crime down the road.

The process seems to be working in some schools. One Oakland (Calif.) school saw suspensions drop 46 percent in 2011-2012 after training more than 200 teachers and administrators in the practice. Suspensions in Ypsilanti dropped 10 percent in less than a year. And the Longmont pilot program that works with the local police department diverted 91 court referrals and saved 172 days of suspension between August 2010 and May 2012.

Pros and cons of restorative justice

If it’s working so well, why isn’t this process in every school? On the surface, restorative justice seems like just the thing our schools need, and schools are obviously seeing results.

The Huffington Post says that a school in Colorado has seen juveniles in restorative justice programs reoffend only 10 percent of the time, which is lower than the 60 to 70 percent national statistic.  But the program isn’t without detractors who think it isn’t ideal in all situations and can be pricey, says the New York Times.

Let’s take a look at what both sides have to say.

The pros and cons of using restorative justice in schools.

Of course, it’s up to each individual school district to determine whether restorative justice would work in their schools. The alternative is always the familiar police officers patrolling high school hallways – an outdated practice that The New York Times says actually results in more kids in trouble.

The bottom line

So, is restorative justice a passing fad? Not in Oakland, where 21 schools have restorative justice programs. Not in Lansing (Mich.), where the school district has saved 875 days of suspension this year alone. And not in Le Grand (Calif.), where students and faculty have created a ‘Restorative Justice League’ aimed at reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions to zero for the entire school year.

While restorative justice won’t be the answer in every case, could it help juveniles before their problems progress to the point where they’re arrested? That’s what more and more schools are betting on.


*Author note: Additional reporting by Jeff Roberts.

Elizabeth Xu

Elizabeth is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys writing engaging content to help former, current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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