CYFA (Center for Youth and Family Advocacy) seeks to transform the juvenile legal system through restorative practices, education, and advocacy in order to empower young people to create and achieve successful outcomes for self, family, and community. Here, we provide information about restorative practices and practical considerations for effective restorative programming.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative philosophy promotes building relationships and rebuilding relationships after harm. Restorative justice is an indigenous practice; it can be traced back to the people of First Nations and indigenous Africans. Thus, the culture of restorative practices is based in Black and Brown communities.
Restorative justice is a community-based approach to addressing harm through facilitated dialogue. It brings together the person who caused harm, the person harmed, and impacted members of the community. Restorative practice provides space and opportunity for:
- A person who has engaged in harm to take true accountability for his or her action;
- A person harmed to have meaningful engagement and opportunity to be heard to address the harm suffered by that person; and
- The community to affirm its values and re-invest in its members.
Restorative justice provides an effective framework to: ensure accountability, empower voice, rebuild relationships, and reintegrate into the community. Restorative justice has gained popularity because effective programming has shown to modify behavior and reduce recidivism. In order to maintain fidelity and honor the culture and origins of restorative practices, programming must ensure that it does not appropriate the framework, disempower Black and Brown communities, or perpetuate further structural harm. We provide the following areas for consideration: Race and Anti-Racism, Systemic and Structural Issues, and Equity.
Race and Anti-Racism.
Restorative justice gained popularity in the United States in the 1970s as a way of moving away from the current retributive system. Unfortunately, for more than 40 years, the field largely ignored issues of race and racial justice. It can be said that restorative practice in the United States fell victim to white supremacy in that it failed to honor the cultural roots of the practice and honor Black and Brown people not only as participants in these practices but, also, as practitioners and experts in the field. Restorative practices are successful when there is acknowledgement of oppressive frameworks: racism, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir, ableism, and xenophobia to name a few. Restorative practices require trust and vulnerability; when racism, anti-Black racism, and systemic oppression are unchecked or meaningfully acknowledged through a true reckoning, restorative practices are marred by the very harms sought to be addressed causing further harm and suffering to Black and Brown people.
Practitioners must proceed with caution and only after a true understanding of the philosophy and commitment to serve. Moreover, this is an area where Black and Brown voices should lead, and their power acknowledged.
Systemic and Structural Issues.
As stated above, restorative practices find their origin in Black and Brown communities. Thus, we must look critically when systems attempt to occupy restorative space. There is a loud outcry against institutionalization of restorative practice; placement of this work within oppressive systems is antithetical to the ethos of restorative philosophy. In order for a system to occupy this space, it must meaningfully acknowledge the historical violence that has been inflicted on Black and Brown people who have been disproportionately affected by the criminal legal system. When systems attempt to utilize restorative practices, derived from the cultures of people of color, without providing a counteraction to systems of whiteness it becomes an extension of those systems.
Similarly, great caution must be paid to understanding voluntariness, a hallmark of restorative practices. Importantly, the practice requires the person who committed the harm to acknowledge wrongdoing. Thus, if the person alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing is not willing to voluntarily admit committing the harmful act, restorative practice cannot be used. The legal system and systemic actors should not be permitted to claim any sort of victory in presenting a false choice between one part of the process (restorative justice) or the criminal legal process (and the full weight of the system including incarceration). Thus, best practice is to center restorative practices and work outside of the legal system and with community organizations that authentically represent minority communities. Community organizations work most closely with members of the community and understand the value of centering power in those most vulnerable and impacted by systemic influences.
Ultimately, the most valuable opportunities exist when we work to infuse the legal system with opportunities to address harm in a way that reduces the likelihood of future harm. In the case of restorative practices, it is best done through public-private collaborations:
- The legal system shows commitment to address systemic racism and oppression through its actions and funding of community organizations;
- The community voice is represented through the practices of the community organization(s);
- Trust and vulnerability are honored through confidentiality of processes; and
- The public-private collaboration breeds more meaningful opportunity to dismantle structural inequities and oppression.
Restorative justice is one option for addressing harm. We must understand that there may be barriers to a person engaging in restorative practice (e.g., the person may not believe they have committed harm and, therefore, are unwilling to voluntarily take responsibility for their alleged actions). Thus, other options are necessary to ensure fidelity to restorative practices.
Certainly, restorative justice has proven to restore and balance relationships and modify behavior resulting in reduced recidivism. Practitioners and system actors must avoid poisoning the authentic practice of restorative justice through coercive actions, systemic oppression, structural inequity, and white supremacy. Rather than view it as a panacea, the legal system and system actors must ensure other opportunities are available to avoid unnecessary punishment and mass criminalization.
Promoting Empathy through Equitable Resolution (PEER) Program.
CYFA has implemented Promoting Empathy through Equitable Resolution (PEER) to address harmful behavior by young people through restorative practices. PEER is faithful to the indigenous practice of restorative justice. PEER honors the cultural roots of restorative justice, it seeks to center power in Black and Brown youth who are disproportionately impacted by the juvenile legal system and school disciplinary system, it utilizes a tested anti-racism curriculum to educate and empower youth and experienced restorative practitioners, and it honors self-determination in youth participation.
CYFA created PEER as one alternative to the juvenile legal system. CYFA recognizes that restorative practices are not appropriate in all circumstances. For that reason, it has created the Youth Peer Court (YPC) as an equitable alternative to youth involvement in the juvenile legal system. Please contact CYFA for more information on PEER and YPC.