Editorial: Restorative justice — an old idea that feels new

The concept of restorative justice — the opportunity for victims and perpetrators to meet and for perpetrators to address the harms they have done and make amends directly — is gaining adherents across the country and the globe. When compared with the current model of punishment through incarceration, it may seem new, but it’s as old as human society.

The Resolve Center for Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice, formerly known as Mediation Works, is working to raise awareness about the concept. And Southern Oregon University is hosting this year’s Northwest Justice Forum May 8-10, where participants can learn about restorative justice in depth. Today is the deadline to register for the forum, at nwjusticeforum.com.

One example of restorative justice is a case of a student who vandalized his school. Rather than a sentence of time in juvenile detention, the boy met with the school custodian and other adults, and agreed to work with the custodian to compensate him for the extra work the vandalism had caused. He also joined the school’s track team and mentored younger students. The emphasis is on accountability, not simply punishment.

While the concept appears ideal for juvenile offenses where offenders can repair the damage they cause, it can work in adult cases as well.

In Durham, North Carolina, James Berish was unloading a handgun in his apartment when the gun discharged, firing a bullet through the floor. The shot struck and wounded Deisy Medina, an 11-year-old girl sleeping in her bed in the apartment below.

Berish, who has a 2-year-old daughter of his own, turned himself in when he learned the shot had injured someone. He could have faced up to 10 and a half years in prison under sentencing guidelines.

Instead, after a yearlong process in which the Berish and Medina families met separately with facilitators, they met face-to-face early this month, and Berish asked for their forgiveness. He had learned that Deisy loved art, and he brought her art supplies.

In court, he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and possession of a stolen firearm. He was sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation. When he pays $1,380 in restitution to the Medinas, gives two speeches on gun safety and donates art supplies to another victim of gun violence, he will move to unsupervised probation.

The judge, the prosecutor and defense all praised Berish’s character and said the restorative justice process benefited both him and the Medina family. He wanted to make sure Deisy could sleep at night without fear, and they wanted healing and answers to their questions.

Holding offenders directly accountable for their actions is at the root of the process. It’s not a new concept. Cara Walsh, director of restorative justice for the Resolve Center, noted, “Back in the day, if you stole a candy bar your mother would drag you to the store.”

Restorative justice does something similar, minus the dragging.

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