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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Restorative Justice: An Alternative to Long Prison Sentences

October 24, 2018

Mass incarceration is increasingly recognized as a major source of both inequality and human rights violations in the United States. The U.S. incarceration rate is now five to ten times higher than those found in comparable countries, and mass incarceration very disproportionately impacts young and poor people, particularly those of color. For example, an estimated one-third of all adult black men have been convicted of a felony offense, and nearly 60 percent of young black men without a high school degree have spent time behind prison bars.

At the same time, violence remains a pervasive public health problem, one that causes a good deal of trauma and suffering. Sadly, the conventional criminal justice response to crime does little to mitigate or ameliorate this suffering. This is especially true for crime survivors who live in communities that are disproportionately impacted by both violence and mass incarceration. In fact, research shows that most prisoners are themselves victims of violence and abuse.

Advocates are increasingly turning to restorative justice as a possible means of addressing survivors’ needs while also reducing reliance on prisons and jails. UW faculty and students have studied alternatives to mass incarceration such as restorative justice—and have been working to implement them in Washington State with the support from the Center for Human Rights. Several years ago, Martina Kartman, an LSJ and UW School of Law alum, received support from UWCHR for a research fellowship with the Rethinking Punishment project. In June 2016, Kartman and UW Professor Katherine Beckett published the results of this research in a report, Violence, Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice: Promising Possibilities. The report concludes that anti-violence strategies rooted in restorative justice principles are a constructive but under-utilized response to interpersonal harm, one that can avoid over-reliance on prisons and jails while taking accountability seriously and addressing the needs of harmed parties.

Last year, Kartman was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to develop restorative justice-based alternatives to incarceration. In collaboration with the Insight Prison Project and the Public Defender Association, Kartman and Beckett have commenced work on two components of this effort. The first involves the implementation of a novel circle facilitation process aimed at fostering healing and accountability at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR). In September of 2017, six volunteers who went through a UWCHR supported circle-process training began facilitating three restorative justice circles that include approximately 30 incarcerated participants at WSR. This work involves the training and leadership development of currently incarcerated facilitators and survivors to run the circles themselves. Future circles offered at WSR and other prisons will involve trained “inside” as well as “outside” facilitators.

The second prong of the work involves building a survivor-led movement in King County to transform the criminal legal system and promote policies that support the people most impacted by violence. This effort is premised on recognition of the fact that “tough on crime” sentencing does not deliver the safety it promises, nor does it support the healing that is necessary for individuals and communities to move forward after experiencing harm. Instead, punitive policies exacerbate the very conditions that lead to crime: conviction and incarceration result in barriers to occupational opportunities, student loans, public assistance, housing, isolation and shame, and increase prisoners’ exposure to violence and trauma. Moreover, the same marginalized communities (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQ, poor, and immigrant) that are overrepresented in the carceral system are also the most likely to be victimized by violence and least likely to access victim services.

Kartman’s survivor-support and leadership effort initiative is the result of conversations with, and is supported by, survivors. To sustain a broad community of crime survivors who are well positioned to engage in shaping public policy, Kartman is developing a series of community-based trainings. The goal is to support survivors in their trauma-healing efforts and to elevate the voices of survivors who are traditionally left out of the policy process to begin advocating for policies that will better reflect their needs and prioritize investments in community-based and restorative responses to harm.

In the future, Kartman and Beckett also hope to design and implement a restorative justice diversion process for young adults who are arrested for violent felonies and those they harmed. Some local leaders have also expressed interest in the idea. The time is ripe for such an initiative, as marginalized crime survivors are leading the call for community-based and restorative responses to harm that address the root causes of crime and violence and serve as an alternative to long prison sentences.