Finding one American approach to restorative justice (RJ) practices is difficult; policies, programmes and approaches differ within the USA from state to state. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the lack of coordinated effort and the need for a unified restorative justice vision.
- Systemic factors hinder the creation of a nationally coordinated restorative justice effort.
- Restorative justice practitioners are using the online format and focusing on community well-being during pandemic.
- Inequities in the impact of the pandemic among different communities need restorative responses.
In the USA there are three main areas of RJ focus. These are:
- reforming the criminal justice system to establish victim-centred justice and put a stop to mass incarceration,
- reshaping school discipline to foster social-emotional development in youth and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline (The full film can be purchased from Teachers Unite.)
- developing community networks to counter the effects of institutional racism and inequity.
To meet these needs there are countless organisations promoting and providing RJ practices all around the country. Some of them gather RJ practitioners to national conferences or offer information on local programmes and training in communities from coast to coast. But none has managed so far to create a single vision or action plan for broadening RJ practices nationally.
The United States has a complicated governing system giving individual states and municipalities the power to set their own policies in certain domains, so long as those policies don’t infringe on rights enshrined in our nation’s constitution. This means that from New York to Nevada, from Idaho to Illinois, approaches to providing health care, establishing voting procedures and creating educational, criminal justice and other systems vary greatly, and that most organisations working to improve services and outcomes in their field are working in isolation from, rather than jointly with similar groups in neighbouring states. Efforts to promote RJ practices throughout the USA are no exception to this phenomenon.
The Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight many systemic failures that restorative practices seek to set right, as well as a lack of national vision around substantiating the effectiveness of RJ practices and broadening their implementation. While some national attention is turning toward ideas for effective systemic reforms that include social work and other restorative-aligned services, strategies to implement any solutions remain piecemeal at best and neglected at worst. This plays out in a number of ways.
In the American criminal justice system, federal zero tolerance and so-called three-strikes policies put into effect in the 1980s and 1990s have led to mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting people of colour and marginalised communities, and resulting in overcrowded prisons. Prisoners live in close quarters, share lavatory facilities, and often are responsible for providing their own personal hygiene supplies. No money to spend at the prison shop may mean no soap to wash your hands. Prison guards and administrators are in close contact with prisoners and with each other daily.
As the country began coming to grips with the fast-spreading coronavirus, valid concerns were raised that prisons under these conditions would rapidly become hotbeds of contagion for both inmates and staff. According to New York City’s Center for Court Innovation (CCI), by early May 2020 the rate of Covid-19 infection at New York City’s Rikers Island jails was five times higher than the rest of the city and almost thirty times higher than that of the nation as a whole. There was a call for the release of non-violent prisoners to alleviate overcrowding, an action taken by many states. Reflecting on the situation, a 14 May 2020 opinion piece in USA Today asks what prisons will look like after the Covid-19 pandemic, challenging the efficacy of old ‘tough on crime’ ideas, reminding readers that ‘40% of the incarcerated population doesn’t present a public safety concern,’ and offering three valuable reforms, the first of which is a shift away from punitive responses to crime and toward restorative justice. These reforms are indeed badly needed and have been promoted within the restorative justice community for some years. But on a national scale who is meant to lead this reform effort? That question is not addressed at all in the article. While there is some countrywide attention to the need for criminal justice reform, including a section of a covid-19 relief bill proposed by the federal House of Representatives in mid-May, to date there is no coordinated push to ensure that RJ Practices are codified into these reforms.
Nancy Riestenberg, Minnesota Department of Education Restorative Practices Specialist has seen circle keepers adopt these guidelines and others suggested by the online RJ community. They note that elements framing the circle — the opening and closing, values round, etc. — are especially essential online. Nancy recognises the challenges of virtual circles; a lot of preparation is needed to make them effective and it isn’t the same as sitting together in circle, but these adaptations allow us to ‘continue to connect and have all voices heard.’
Among the RJ community there is clarity that students and staff at schools will need RJ more than ever once we return to on-site classes. Everyone is experiencing the effects of the pandemic differently. One Columbia School of Social Work instructor uses the apt metaphor that we are all in the same storm, but some of us are weathering it in sturdy, luxurious yachts while others have leaky rowing boats they are perpetually struggling to bail out just to stay afloat. Community healing circles for all would be ideal when we can re-open schools. Circles will allow those most heavily afflicted by the pandemic to obtain the support they need and those less affected to understand how systemic inequities disproportionately impact different segments of the community. Rebuilding communities and schools to be more inclusive and equitable is going to be essential to community well-being and the ability of all to thrive. To date there is no coordinated national movement to make this happen.
Figure: Centrepiece from a healing circle
One encouraging occurrence during the pandemic is the expanded development of mutual aid networks around the USA. Mutual aid groups have a history of forming in response to crises, whether they are caused by hurricanes, pandemics, violent conflicts, or other events. In areas where people need food supplies and other aid during the pandemic mutual aid groups have sprung up quickly. Big Door Brigade out of Seattle, Washington, provides resources and tool kits for active mutual aid as well as guidelines for safely delivering aid during the pandemic. Mutual Aid & Restorative Justice provides online circles for all communities as well as direct aid to those in need and opportunities for volunteers. A national mapping project by the Mutual Aid Hub shows how widespread these networks have become during the Covid-19 crisis.
Such groups may be the key to helping those in greatest need to access services and support. Covid-19 health care workers and first responders are overwhelmed and exhausted with caring for the sick and with providing food and other necessities at daily risk to their own well-being. These very factors make it more difficult to introduce new online practices that might help sustain them through the crisis. While many restorative justice virtual support and healing circles are being offered, due to inequities and lack of a cohesive system, without connections through mutual aid networks they often cannot reach the populations who need them most. This is where the scope of mutual aid societies can make a difference and where a nationally unified restorative justice practices movement would benefit the whole society.
Despite generous resource-sharing on the part of the restorative justice community during the pandemic, media coverage of the positive outcomes of restorative justice practices, and nationwide calls to address the inequities of the American criminal justice and school discipline systems, to date there is no unified vision on how to launch a national action to expand implementation of restorative justice. But there is a burgeoning will to make this happen. And where there is a will, there is a way.