A History: How RJ City Adopted Restorative Justice
RJ City did not become committed to restorative justice overnight. Nor was the interest in this approach to crime and conflict limited to public officials; there was significant community support as well. In fact, restorative thinking and values now influence all aspects of community life. Find out how that came to be.
RJ City lies in an area where new legislation was adopted ten years ago permitting the creation of “Justice Jurisdictions” whose borders are contiguous with the boundaries of cities with a population of at least 1,000,000 people. The impetus for this change was a crisis of prison overcrowding due to the number and length of prison sentences in the state. Costs had risen to the point that educational and medical budgets were reduced, with further and more dramatic reductions forecast in succeeding years. These cuts were not popular among the voters, and it was hoped that the new legislation would halt the escalating criminal justice costs associated with crime within large cities.
The legislation creating local Justice Jurisdictions accomplished several things:
This meant that all State and County resources dedicated to responding to crime in that city would be placed at the disposal of the City Council. This meant that the proportionate share of resources expended by State and County law enforcement, jails, prisons, probation, parole, prosecution, courts, criminal defence, victim assistance, and so forth would be given to the City. In return, the City agreed to respond to all crime within the City without further State or County assistance. If any such assistance (such as forensic or investigatory experts, prison or jail space, and so forth) were required at any point in the criminal justice process, the City would be required to pay for it on a cost basis.
Because funds had been allocated already for prison construction, capital funds sufficient to build jails, prisons or other places of confinement were also available to Justice Jurisdictions. The funds provided were sufficient to house the percentage of state and county prisoners from that Justice Jurisdiction on the effective date of the legislation. The funds could be used for any capital project required to respond to crime within the Justice Jurisdiction’s boundaries. However, the Justice Jurisdiction then became responsible for all costs related to running those institutions.
Justice Jurisdictions are bound by the State’s criminal law, but the City Council is authorised to establish levels of seriousness for each of those laws and to determine how the Justice Jurisdictions would respond to each level. It was possible for the City Council to decline to enforce the least serious crimes, which would effectively decriminalize those offences. Further, the City Council could determine ranges of permissible sentences for each range without being bound by any existing mandatory or presumptive sentencing laws in the State.
RJ City’s City Council, following the recommendation of the Mayor, applied for Justice Jurisdiction status. RJ City qualified for such a designation, having a population of just over 1 million people. After community hearings, public debates, consultations, and widespread media coverage, the City Council decided to adopt restorative justice as its philosophy of criminal justice. This was ratified in a public referendum. Over a period of years, it reorganized its criminal justice system until it was hardly recognizable. Whole departments were closed down and others created. Some staff were retrained for new positions, others decided to retire, and those who remained received substantial and, by all accounts, highly effective training on the definition, values and implications of restorative justice. Some funds that had been previously used in the criminal justice system were used instead to contract with local or citywide non-profit organisations.
A few words should be added to explain why restorative justice generated this level of support. Several years prior to the referendum, one elementary school began using restorative interventions in dealing with student discipline. This approach not only reduced the number of students reported to the principal for disciplinary action, it also created a learning environment in which students were able to learn better. After one year’s pilot, teachers and staff in all public schools were trained to use restorative processes, and restorative justice became the official approach to student discipline.
On occasion restorative practices were used in dealing with staff-administration conflict as well, and the approach was so successful that it was incorporated into the next teacher’s contract. This brought restorative practices to the attention of City officials, who decided after a few years to adopt these approaches in dealing with all disciplinary infractions involving city employees. This brought restorative practices to the attention of the business community, and several of the largest companies in the city decided to use restorative practices in their disciplinary procedures.
Meanwhile a coalition of non-profit organisations began to promote restorative justice as a better way to deal with offending. Their initial work focused on juvenile offenders and they found considerable support from police and social workers who had seen the benefits of this approach in schools. But the group also launched a city-wide public education campaign to generate public support. This campaign had several key features:
It should be understood that the citizens of RJ City are normal people. While many have come, over time, to internalise the values of collaborative conflict resolution (and to become adept at resolving disputes restoratively), it should not be assumed that they are uniquely and uniformly committed to making restorative justice work.
Furthermore, the crimes that occur in RJ City are similar to those that take place elsewhere. The offenders, victims, witnesses, even those who run restorative programs are susceptible to the same range of personalities, emotions, busyness, burnout and dilemmas as they would in any other city.
 This campaign was organized after consultation with Ann Warner Roberts who had been brought in as a consultant early in the coalition’s efforts. The following strategy was based on her recommendations to the coalition.
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