The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 8, 2009


Communities for Restorative Justice

submitted by Christy Barbee

Restorative justice is an important complement to the existing justice establishment because it supports victims far more effectively and helps offenders become accountable for wrongdoing, said Howard Zehr, the “grandfather” of restorative justice, in a visit to the area in March.

Dr. Zehr visited as a guest of Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ), which partners with police departments in several towns in the area to bring together victims and offenders in restorative justice “circles.” Dr. Zehr met with police chiefs, corrections officers, victim advocates and offender diversion programs from 19 jurisdictions in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, answering questions about how to implement restorative practices. He also spoke at a large community forum in Concord, sponsored by the Concord Cultural Council with support from the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council, the Law Cooperative, Trinitarian Congregational Church and Debra’s Natural Gourmet.

Volunteers from C4RJ were treated to a small meeting with Dr. Zehr at the Acton Police Department, in which he remarked on the unique nature of their program, which is community-based, as many such programs are, but which also partners closely with area police departments. The role of police is important, he noted, because of their place in their communities in ensuring public safety.

“You couldn’t do better than a court of law to generate PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Dr. Zehr told the community forum. “It’s not that the legal system doesn’t care. It’s just the way it’s set up.” Too often, he said, victims are ignored by the justice system and offenders are discouraged by the system from examining and taking real responsibility for their actions.

Dr. Zehr cited research into restorative justice approaches in the U.S. indicating that restorative justice substantially reduces reoffending by 25% to 30%, especially with violent crimes. Restorative justice takes many forms and has been used successfully for both juvenile and adult crime. It has also been used in prisons and in a variety of school settings. Recently, the Chicago school system abandoned its zero-tolerance approach to school discipline in favor of restorative practices.

In cases pursued through restorative justice practices, research from the U.K. has found, PTSD and related health costs are also reduced, he said, as participants experience less desire for revenge. When used as a diversion from prosecution, restorative justice has substantially increased the likelihood that offenders admit their deeds and has reduced costs and caseloads for courts, Dr. Zehr said.

Victims benefit by being able to tell their stories, describe the harms they have experienced and assert what they need in order to regain balance. Offenders, by acknowledging harm done to their victims, confront and often abandon their own “neutralizing strategies” and rationalizations.

Restorative justice is often viewed as “soft” on crime. Dr. Zehr said it is anything but, noting that offenders in restorative programs must work hard to face their own wrongdoing and shame, make amends and convince victims and participants that they have learned.

In partnership with police departments, C4RJ provides restorative justice in Acton, Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Groton and Littleton. Several other towns are on a path to join these communities. C4RJ’s work is carried out by trained volunteers and a small staff, and is supported by grants and individual donations. For more information about C4RJ, visit or contact Executive Director Jennifer Larson Sawin,, 1-978-318-3447.

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