Friday, August 03, 2007

Restorative Justice-Texas Style

Who can say when the phrase “Justice, Texas-style” was first uttered? What is certain is that since the state declared independence from Mexico 171 years ago, the term has become synonymous with swift, hard retribution, often accompanied by the cinder-block-splitting end of one of Chuck Norris’s reverse roundhouse kicks.
For the incarcerated, Texas-style justice may indeed feel like a kick in the teeth. Politicians (and since district attorneys and judges are elected in Texas, we include both in that category) sell themselves to voters with a tough-on-crime image, which often translates into cheap-on-rehabilitation policies and practices. The result: Slow case processing, trials weighted in favor of the prosecution, harsher sentences, overcrowded jails and prisons, a high recidivism rate, and so on, so forth, so what? After all, why should law-abiding citizens care about criminals?

In the last few years, a small but growing contingent in Texas has been pushing for a shift in criminal-justice priorities. While our current system of “retributive justice” serves to punish and alienate offenders from society, “restorative justice” is an inclusive theory that aims to repair the harm inflicted on society through offender rehabilitation and victim reconciliation. Under this paradigm, the victim is at the center of the justice process, offenders are held directly accountable, and the community as a whole is urged to participate in the healing process, which is directed at both the victim and the offender.

In late June, proponents of this new approach held the first-ever National Conference on Restorative Justice at Schreiner University in Kerrville, of all places, and it wasn’t just bleeding-heart activists behind it. Organized by the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Source of Light Center at San Antonio’s University Presbyterian Church, the conference featured speakers from across the nation and globe, as well as regional policymakers such as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

“The most clear, distinct, measurable, internationally used and empirically grounded form of this movement is what I call ‘restorative justice dialogue,’ and that involves a process where the families most affected by the reality of crime and conflict — communities, victims, offenders, families — have the opportunity to come together to talk about the real human impact of this stuff,” said Dr. Mark Umbreit, the founding director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking.

Many of the techniques embraced by the restorative justice movement — including victim-offender mediation, family-group conferencing, and community peacemaking circles — were developed in post-conflict countries, such as South Africa, which pioneered victim-offender mediation after the end of Apartheid through their “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” These techniques were further developed in international contexts, such as Irish-British and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Minnesota and Wisconsin are currently hotspots for restorative-justice initiatives, whether it be prison-based programs or reconciliation projects involving Liberian refugees.

Texas may indeed be the next vortex for the movement as professors at UTSA and St. Mary’s University push for restorative-justice curricula and local officials add it to their priorities. As a result, in the next decade, Texas-style justice may become less Chuck Norris and more Nelson Mandela.

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