A Restorative Justice Based Practice of Law

I’m putting the finishing touches on my breakout session for the RPI conference next week in St. Paul about restorative lawyering. What’s that? Both Dan Van Ness and Howard Zehr describe restorative justice as being a continuum, with some practices fully restorative and others not at all restorative. Most RJ program practices can be placed someplace on that continuum.  I have found that in my everyday practice of law and mediation, my practices may also be placed on that continuum and I work to find the ways to make them more restorative.

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Restorative Justice comes to West Virginia Schools

Last summer I had a call from the superintendent of schools over in Calhoun County, West Virginia.  Superintendent Tim Woodward was frustrated by frequent fights breaking out in the schools and the ineffectiveness of the school discipline system to stop them.  He was familiar with restorative justice, having worked in the schools near Harrisonburg, Virginia.   County prosecutor, Shannon Johnson, referred Mr. Woodward to me and we brainstormed a while on how we might bring restorative justice to Calhoun County.  We found great resources in Kathy Evans, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University who works on RJ in schools, and Jim Nolan, a WVU sociology professor.   The four of us collaborated and created a two-day program in January 2017 at the  Calhoun County administrative office 

This summer, Mr. Woodward accepted an opportunity to move to  Hancock County. Meanwhile, Kelli Whytsell, the assistant superintendent in Calhoun was promoted to superintendent.  In May, Ms. Whytsell and Mr. Woodward and I put our heads together and decided to create an intensive training on restorative justice at Canaan Valley with teachers and administrators from both systems. Jim Nolan again joined us for the training.  We were also  joined by Dashiell Quasebarth, a classroom teacher in the Virginia Beach area who uses restorative justice in his classroom.  

This was a situation when I learned more than the participants!  This  enthusiastic, compassionate and experienced group of professionals quickly caught onto the concept that restorative justice focuses on healing the harm after wrongdoing, rather than punishment for punishment's sake. Many of the Calhoun County participants began implementing some restorative practices in January.  With that experience came some successes.  One of the situations that impressed me most involved two parents who were drawn into a conflict outside of school, but had heard about the restorative circles and asked the school to help them work it out. The Calhoun teachers, administrators, and counselors had experiences with students who experienced a significant transformation in accepting responsibility for their wrongdoing during restorative justice processes.

calhoun restorative justice

Most of the Hancock county professionals were new to restorative justice.  However, as they learned about the principles and values of RJ, they were able to identify ways how what they are currently doing is consistent with restorative practices. Many easily articulated finding ways to expand these ideas  further.  Several teachers were excited to learn about the paradigm shift, moving away from punishment towards an outlook that seeks to find what harm was done and then look for ways to make right the wrongs and meet the needs of the offender, victim and the community.  

Some teachers struggled with the idea of less authoritarian approach in the classroom.  Midway through the training, we did a role play.  Participants assumed roles as teachers, administrators, and students, including one very disruptive student who was having trouble learning.  During the role play, the participant’s  became perspective shifted.  Some said that the time we had together had caused them to reexamine the way that they had done things and they were excited and looked forward to a new approach.  

My favorite moment of the weekend followed some small group discussions we had about various challenges that we are trying to address with restorative justice.  When we reconvened, we formed two circles in a Margolis wheel.  Teachers from Hancock County sat on the inside of the circle, and those from Hancock on the outside of the circle as they shared the ideas that were generated from their small group discussions.  It was rejuvenating for me to see how such experienced and dedicated teachers could be so excited about bringing RJ into their work.

Many of the participants came into the training thinking that the restorative justice in schools would be another program to invest in, roll out and then replace in few years.  However, once they realized that RJ is more a "way of being" that allows the educators to integrate new ways into looking at wrongdoing in the educational environment into their communities.
 

FREE WEBINAR ABOUT RESTORATIVE JUSTICE AND LAWYERING

On December 7, 2016,  I’ll be joining Howard Zehr for a webinar on Restorative Lawyering.  Restorative Lawyering is a model of practicing law that I have been developing along with colleagues such as Marshall Yoder and Susan Marcus.  Restorative lawyering adopts the guiding principles and values of restorative justice.  In doing so, we look at each situation, problem, or conflict and often start by asking,  “Has there been harm that needs to be addressed?” and “What can be done to make right the wrongs?”  These fundamental questions, central to restorative justice, change the focus from what statute or rule has been violated to what can be done to make things better.  

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THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: REFLECTIONS ON S.B. 393.

Last week West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill creating many reforms for juvenile justice.  The bill includes a reference to restorative justice programs.  In 2007, I returned to formal education at the Center for Justice and Peace at E.M.U in Harrisonburg and earned an M.A., with a concentration in restorative justice.  During my nearly thirty year career, I have served as an assistant prosecutor in both Berkeley and Kanawha County, and in private practice, represented many criminal defendants.  Following my studies at EMU, I found that restorative justice offers a great deal of potential in addressing harm that stems from criminal wrongdoing. 

While my days working with the West Virginia legislature are behind me, I have had the chance to review the bill that  Governor Tomblin signed.  Like most bills, certain provisions work well, but other areas fall short.  This post includes my short review of the bill: the  good, the bad and some ugly.

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APPALACHIAN VALUES AND DRUG COURTS, PART II

Last week I enjoyed visiting the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky where I participated in a discussion about Appalachian cultural values and legal institutions. Typically when I participate in any discussion about legal institutions, issues arise pertaining to an increasing dependence in the United States on legal institutions to resolve broad categories of conflicts. This discussion was no exception. We considered issues related to resolving social problems and addiction through the criminal judicial processes.

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APPALACHIAN VALUES AND DRUG COURTS, PART I

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a conversation, a “SWAP,” at the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky.   The center, directed by anthropologist Ann Kingsolver, works to facilitate stronger connections between the UK faculty and students who are working with a focus on Appalachia.  The center also works to strengthen relationships between those of us doing work in the Appalachian region and UK.

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THE POTENTIAL FOR MEDIATION IN CRIMINAL CASES

Mediation has not historically occurred in criminal cases or quasi-criminal cases in the United States.  However, in the late 20th century, processes similar to mediation became employed in some cases.  These processes resemble mediation because they are usually voluntary, inclusive, informal, and allow for a more expansive list of options to resolve the underlying problems.  While mediation is almost always beneficial in civil cases, criminal cases must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if they are suitable for these processes.

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