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Healing Communities through Restorative Justice

Healing and rebuilding relationships are critical for communities impacted by the justice system, but often fall by the wayside in favor of punitive approaches to justice. These elements remain a focus in restorative justice practices, which address harm and promote reconciliation through community-led healing. With growing interest in restorative practices, it is important to consider what it means for programs to employ restorative justice principles and what these innovative approaches can look like in our communities.

Mathew Schwartz | unsplash.com


In the Bay Area, there are many people returning to their communities after being released from jail and prison—a process that can be overwhelming and confusing to navigate alone. Thus, community-based programs are providing rehabilitation services and supports to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into the community. In addition to CJCJ’s
reentry programs, the Delancey Street Foundation has aided people through stable housing, job training, education, and accountability processes for over forty years. Delancey Street is a self-supporting rehabilitation center run directly by its justice-involved residents through its empowering “each-one-teach-one” method.

Among the many individuals whose lives have been changed by programs like Delancey Street stands Shirley LaMarr. Her life story of overcoming addiction and later working to support incarcerated people on a similar path is inspirational. Shirley formerly directed CJCJ’s Cameo House, a residential program for homeless justice-involved women and their children, and continues to operate the Mz. Shirliz Transitional Centre.

Previously, Shirley started the Choices program at San Mateo County Jail, which helps incarcerated individuals develop behavioral skills to better their lives. Although the Choices program is located within the jail, it is unlike the rest of the facility; its atmosphere is colorful and upbeat. The program participants are granted more personal freedom in the shared space where the doors to the cells remain open and individuals engage with one another freely. During a recent tour of the facility, I was able to see the smiling faces of participants, talk face to face, and hear the stories of their healing process. The program utilizes the space as a therapeutic community and encourages restorative justice approaches. As a result, individuals who participated in the Choices Programs had no reports of physical incidents and had higher completion of GED certification compared to their counterparts not in the program.

More communities, schools, and countries have adopted restorative justice approaches as a way to reestablish the meaning of ‘criminal justice.’ Separate from the predominant mass incarceration perspective, this approach asks important questions about rehabilitation that are otherwise dismissed and it sheds light on restoring the relationships that were once broken. Traditional retributive approaches to criminal justice neglect the real issues of those who have been harmed, those who caused harm, and their broader communities. Not only do they focus on punishment, but they also fail to prevent more harm from occurring once the retribution is done. Conversely, restorative practices aim to unite victims, those who caused harm, and the community through reconciling the harm. Moreover, restorative justice is driven to find solutions that focus on violence and harm as a health issue in order to meet communities’ ranging needs.

In a recent TED talk given by Deanna Van Buren, a socially conscious ‘activist architect’ and co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, Deanna challenges our current justice system and the structure of its prisons through the lens of design. Her initial passion for prison reform began when she was given the opportunity to educate incarcerated individuals about the “positive power of design,” but the traumatizing cold spaces of prisons sparked an idea in her. Rather than build a “prettier prison,” she decided to create peacemaking and training centers that welcome formerly incarcerated people and provide accessible restorative justice resources. Deanna asks: What do we need to build in order to have a world without prisons? The answer, she explains, is innovative spaces that reflect “restorative economics,” such as:

1. Restore Oakland, the first of many community centers to come, “that envisions a people-powered economy and an accountability-centered justice system”. Deanna, an Oakland native, decided to implement her multipurpose peacemaking center with the support of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

2. Popup Resources Village, a school on wheels that provides workshops to help formerly incarcerated individuals receive a high school education and GED in under-resourced areas. It will also include medical and social services.

Given these examples, restorative justice methods can look like resource centers on wheels, job training restaurants, circle groups, and more. Unlike the traditional punitive system that is one-sided, restorative justice approaches are multidimensional and focus on the aftermath of harm. Bringing together the community in a positive and constructive way produces better chances for healing the most vulnerable people. In addition to who is involved in, and benefits from, restorative justice approaches, it is important to consider where restorative practices are implemented. While the Choices program provides a powerful rehabilitative opportunity for people incarcerated at San Mateo County Jail, restorative justice is generally a community-based approach, like Restore Oakland and the Popup Resource Village.

In order to promote healing and relationship-building, people need to have access to their own personal freedom and support within the community. We as a community should continue to push past conventional thinking around criminal justice in order to create constructive and stable connections in all communities.


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