With the area’s top prosecutor in the audience, an expert in “restorative justice” made a case Friday for expanding the practice in Jacksonville.
“We, as a society, have become a little bit drunk on punishment,” said Lauren Abramson, a biopsychologist and founder of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore. “Punishing alone is not going to get us the kind of outcomes (we want), if we want safer communities.”
Abramson was one of two presenters at Friday’s meeting of State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, a group made up on nonprofit leaders, attorneys, judges and advocates. The other was Ellis Curry, who as a teen was sentenced to more than a decade in prison for his role in the 1993 murder of 14-year-old Jeff Mitchell. Curry and Glen Mitchell, the victim’s father, would go on to work together closely to tell their story to schools and other groups. Mitchell died just over a year ago.
Each presentation explored the role of forgiveness and healing in the criminal justice system.
Restorative justice aims to respond to a crime or misdeed by involving the victims, the community and the offenders in a way that repairs the damage done. The goal is to meet the needs of the victim while holding the defendant accountable beyond simply imposing a punishment.
Abramson said in the traditional courts process, the focus is on punishment and that victims are peripheral to the process. The courts also leave little room for a major part of humanity: emotions. Restorative justice is built on the principles of respect, fairness, inclusion and self-determination and the belief that there are no disposable people.
To participate in one of the conferences, the affected people — the victims, their supporters, the defendants and their supporters — sit together in a circle and share how the incident at hand affected them. For example, when a child is harmed, parents also suffer from that harm but might not immediately be considered a victim until it is pointed out.
“A much bigger picture of who’s affected by this gets painted,” Abramson said.
Together, the participants address how they want to repair the harm and what to do to prevent it from happening again.
More than 20,000 people in Baltimore have taken part in community conferences, and 95 percent of the time they come to a resolution.
Nelson wanted to know about the recidivism rate, as well as the victims’ satisfaction with the process.
Abramson said over the past 20 years, recidivism is steadily between 9 and 12 percent, and victim satisfaction has been so consistently above 95 percent that organizers eventually stopped asking about it.
When a board member expressed concerns that an offender might be too cynical and a victim too unwilling to participate, Abramson responded to “not make assumptions about anybody.” Only about 15 percent of people referred for community conferencing have declined to participate, she said.
Locally, the practice is used in Duval County Public Schools for disciplinary issues, as well as in the juvenile justice system, typically for first-time offenders with misdemeanor offenses.
When a minor receives a civil citation in lieu of being arrested for a misdemeanor, he or she is usually directed away from court and to either Teen Court or a Neighborhood Accountability Board. Instead of a judge, peers or community members hand out sanctions, such as counseling, book reports and community service. Together, the programs have a recidivism rate of about 5 percent, according to a previous Times-Union report, which is on par with statewide recidivism for civil citations.
Juveniles who commit felonies are not eligible, though sometimes their cases are sent to other diversion programs.
Abramson pointed to research that shows most first-time offenders don’t reoffend, so why waste resources on those cases? Why not instead take a child with numerous prior offenses because clearly, whatever has been done for that child isn’t working.
In his presentation, Curry shared that when he was a young teen who robbed people — before Jeff Mitchell’s death — he didn’t think of it as doing harm to the victims because they weren’t physically hurt. Similarly, one of Mitchell’s friends witnessed him being shot, and Curry said it wasn’t until he was an adult and out of prison that he realized how deeply that victimized that boy.
Abramson asked if he’d ever met that young man. Curry said he hadn’t, but that he could likely find him, and would try to start that conversation.
“Time does not heal all wounds,” Abramson said.
Tessa Duvall: (904) 359-4697