The current criminal justice system in America has two main objectives: Primarily to identify, convict, and punish the perpetrators of crimes, and secondly, to restore property lost or damaged as a result of crimes. While criminals and damages are part of the equation, the current system eliminates the victim, without which there would not be a crime in the first place. A philosophy known as Restorative Justice brings the victim into the equation, accepting that crime not only breaks the law, but it also harms people, psychologically, physically, emotionally, or any combination thereof.
“Harm is fundamentally a violation of relationships,” says Stephanie Frogge, a crime victims specialist consultant and Lecturer with the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. “Anything that violates those relationships carries with it certain obligations and responsibilities on the head of the offender. Restorative Justice seeks to hear what that harm is and to put right whatever can be done to repair the consequences of the harm.”
According to the Restorative Justice model, victims and offenders voluntarily meet face-to-face in a mediated session, giving the victim a safe environment to ask questions and make sense of the crime and the offender an opportunity to redeem themselves by righting their wrong. While the current justice system focuses on restitution, Restorative Justice recognizes that jail time and fines paid to the State will not necessarily restore a victim’s sense of security or lower recidivism rates among offenders, but honest communication may.
Tim Dunn, chairman of the board of directors of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, uses an example of car theft to define the shortcomings of the current justice system. “If someone stole your car and the State asked what you wanted, you’d say, ‘I want my car back.’ The State would say, ‘We don’t care about your car, but we’re going to find the perpetrator, throw him in jail -where he can learn to be a better criminal- and [taxpayers] are going to pay $21,390* a year for it.’” If, however, the perpetrator were to be held accountable by the man whose car he stole, if he were to understand the far-reaching consequences of his crime and participate in the restitution of his offense, all three parties would benefit. The victim would be restored, the criminal would be redeemed, and the State would save money.
Restorative Justice is not a silver bullet for the current system, which is wrought with over-criminalization, bureaucracy, and waste; moreover, the model is not applicable to all types of crimes and is not intended to replace the current criminal justice system. Introduced in the Texas 83rd Legislative Session by Representative Eddie Lucio III (D-District 38) is H.B. 281 which offers potential reform in the Texas criminal justice system by allowing immediate family members of peace officers killed in the line of duty to make a statement regarding the terms of a plea agreement. Representative Ruth Jones McClendon (D-District 120) also has H.B. 167 filed that would allow for a defendant to enter a pre-trial mediation session with the victim. Naturally, both of these proposals include requirements and restrictions.
While both bills in the Texas Legislature are the products of Democratic lawmakers, Dunn makes a strong case for why conservatives should join the fight for criminal justice reform, largely citing the issue over over-criminalization. “If you believe in liberty, if you believe in conservative values, criminal justice should be high on your list of things to care about. As conservatives, we’ve assume everything is okay and [criminals] are [in prison] because they’re supposed to be, but it may surprise you.”
Conservatives inherently favor small government, lower taxes, and personal responsibility; Restorative Justice embodies all three. By reducing the scope and ambiguity of the penal code, the multitude of innocuous activities that are considered “crimes” by the State will not result in prosecution. A reduction in State-initiated prosecution will directly reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars needed to fund trials, sustain prisoners, and build new prisons. The offenders who do go through the Restorative Justice model voluntarily take responsibility for their actions and are more likely work to become a contributing member of society rather than return to the criminal system.
*The initial monetary value given by Dunn was estimated; this figure is supported by a verifiable source.
For more information about Restorative Justice, over-criminalization, and other reform initiatives, please consult Right On Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in cooperation with Prison Fellowship.