Taking Responsibility: A Conversation on Restorative Justice and Youth

Dr. Mara Schiff, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic
University, focuses her work on restorative justice, community justice, and juvenile justice. Here, she gives on
overview of restorative practices and discusses why a restorative approach can be particularly valuable for youth. October


SARAH SCHWEIG: I’m Sarah Schweig of
the Center for Court Innovation and today on New Thinking I’m speaking with Dr. Mara Schiff. Dr. Schiff is an
associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. Her work specializes
in restorative justice with focuses on community justice and juvenile justice. Dr. Schiff is in New York because
she has just participated in a research roundtable on youth courts hosted by the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks
for speaking with me today. Welcome. Restorative justice basically is about healing the harm done to victims and
communities while holding offenders accountable for their actions. So to start, can you give us a brief description
of what some restorative processes look like in practice, and how are these practices different from the sort of
business as usual approach in the criminal justice system?

DR. SCHIFF: There are many different
types of restorative practices. The most important thing about restorative practices is not the model it uses, although
I’ll talk about those, but the values and principles on which the intervention is based, specifically, as you
mentioned, the idea of repairing harm. The idea of including stakeholders, so the victim, the offender, and communities
in the response to crime. That it be an inclusive process, that it be flexible to the needs of the participants,
or those that have been affected by the particular event. And a series of values, respect, how we interact with each
other. It’s not so much just about the model, although there are models that demonstrate, if done well, that
demonstrate these values. So, for example there’s victim/offender mediation, which is a dyadic model with a
victim, an offender, and a facilitator. That can then expand outward to something called a conference or a family
group conference, which might include a victim, an offender, a facilitator, and members of their respective families,
and possibly other supporters. That can expand further outward to something called circles. And in circles there
may be—the facilitator in circles is called a keeper, who may do a lot of work prior to bringing—in any of these
interventions a lot of work is done prior to bringing the priors together. You’d never do that without making
sure it’s appropriate to have these people in a room together. But in circles you may include the victim, the
offender, their families, and anybody who feels that they have a stake in the outcome of this event, that they were
affected by it and want to participate in how it’s going to be discussed and resolved.

SCHWEIG: You’re here in New York for a round table in youth courts. The youth courts train teenagers to serve as
jurors, judges, and attorneys handling real life cases involving their peers. How do you see the goals of restorative
justice related to what you’ve observed during your visit, and do you think youth courts can be restorative?

DR. SCHIFF: So I’ve learned a lot about youth courts in my visit. And there are, as with any process,
even including traditional court-based processes, there’s advantages and disadvantages, things that work and
things that don’t work. What works about youth courts—again, and in any of this the caveat has to be—when they’re
done well. What works is that it gives youth an opportunity to engage with their peers about the impact of their
actions and what needs to be done to resolve it. So that it’s not simply about adults telling kids what to do
or punishing kids for what they do. It’s kids working with kids and understanding the actions and behaviors
of their peers, not of people who they can’t really relate to. Youth courts also have a lot of different models.
Some of them are restorative, some of them are not, and it’s not better or worse because it’s restorative,
it’s just the model through which it’s been implemented. Personally, I like things that are more restorative,
obviously, so I believe more in models that are restorative. And by that I mean they are dialogue based, they are
not deliberatively punitive, that are inclusive and flexible to the needs of the participant, not adversarial. It’s
not about us versus them. It’s how do we collectively understand and respond to what’s happened? In an
adversarial model, we are generally trained not to take responsibility rather than to take responsibility. And restorative
process is grounded in taking responsibility and being honored for that. Being respected for the guts and the maturity
it takes to be responsible rather than to deny responsibility in hopes of getting lesser punishment. Youth courts,
when implemented restoratively, where they are about repairing harm, and they are about understanding the impact
of your actions, and they are about giving youth an opportunity to make amends and earn their own redemption back
into their communities and be honored and respected for doing that, to become known as the kid who does good, rather
than the kid who’s always messing up.

SARAH SCHWEIG: As you know, evidence based practices
are very much based on being able to prove outcomes in certain ways, and proving impact, and quantifying what a program
is achieving. And I saw you wrote that impact of restorative justice interventions on communities is especially problematic
because definitions and boundaries of community are amorphous and hard to pin down. So I was wondering if maybe you
could talk about some of the challenges of evaluating the impact of restorative justice programs, especially those
perhaps designed for youth and do traditional measures effectiveness, like delinquent behavior or recidivism adequately
measure effective programs?

DR. SCHIFF: Over the last 10 years probably, we’ve gotten far
more sophisticated at measuring the impacts of restorative processes. Yes, we should measure recidivism. Yes we should
look at—do restorative interventions reduce subsequent harm in offending as much as, or more than traditional court
interventions. Of course we should look at that. But we shouldn’t use that as the exclusive gauge of whether
or not a program is working. I’ve been working for the last four years on restorative practices in schools because
I’ve come to believe that by the time a kid gets into the juvenile justice system we’ve missed so many
opportunities to learn that something’s going on with this kid, and we’ve missed so many opportunities
to intervene in a way to direct him out of the system. There’s an opportunity in schools where you have an active
audience. Kids have to be there. And given that, we have an opportunity to teach them ways of behavior, and ways
of interacting with each other, ways of accountability, ways of being engaged in community. So for example, if you’re
looking at a restorative practice in a school, yeah we want to look at—did we keep the kid out of the system? Of
course it’s hard to measure what we didn’t do, and that’s one of the hardest things about this is
it’s hard to measure what we’ve prevented. But for example, is the kid doing better in school? Does he
have more friends? Is he showing up? Does he feel engaged in his school community? Is he talking more in class? Now
those aren’t necessarily things that you can say, a justice-based intervention is responsible for doing, but
there are ways of looking at the benefits of a practice that are not just about, did the kid commit another offense?
And particularly in restorative justice processes, we want to be attentive to that. For most of the kids who wind
up in the justice system, there are so many problems. There are so many issues that these kids confront that it’s
really unfair to say that because A or B intervention did not produce the result of keeping him out of the system,
that we’ve done a bad job, when there are many other issues and problems and concerns that may face this kid,
that are just so much more complex than did he not re-offend again because he participated in a circle. Youth courts
can occur either in a justice setting or a school setting, but the language of those settings differs. The outcomes
we want to look at from those settings differs and the way that the restorative practice integrates with other things
that are going on in the justice process or in a school-based process are very different. And we have to be cognizant
of the environment in and outside of the school, and what a kid may need to do simply to survive. So we teach a kid
how to talk about what happened, but then he goes to his home or his community and is given a completely different
set of cues, is ridiculed, maybe, for talking about it or wanting to be “sensitive” to someone else, or
to somebody that he harmed. When if we’re not including communities in the type of work we’re doing in
a justice system and in a school system, we may be beating our head against a wall because we can’t, through
one intervention that doesn’t permeate all of the different communities and environments a child may have to
encounter. We tend, when there’s something like restorative justice or some other intervention, to hold it to
very high standards, like it’s got to do everything that the court system doesn’t do to consider it effective.
Well no, it doesn’t have to be the be all and end all that solves all problems for all kids.

SCHWEIG: Right. How does restorative justice itself change when applied to young people, do you think? Or how should
it change?

DR. SCHIFF: Kids are kids. Kids do dumb things because they’re kids, not because
they’re evil. But if you look back 20 years ago or 30 years ago, things happened in schools or on streets that
were not criminal offenses, they were just what happened. And kids grow out of them. Now we criminalize a lot of
small, minor stuff that kids will grow out of. And it’s tragic. And we’re putting kids into a system for
stupidity, really, or for immaturity, not for criminal behavior. So we have to be aware that kids are kids and their
mental, and moral, and social, psychological, emotional development is not that of an adult and we can’t interact
with them like they should know that. We have to teach them.

SARAH SCHWEIG: I’m Sarah Schweig
of the Center for Court Innovation and I have been speaking with about restorative justice and juvenile justice.
To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation, please visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks
for listening.