For 50 years, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has supported organizations in communities across the U.S. that make positive differences in people's lives. By confronting the root causes of poverty and funding local groups that address systemic issues such as homelessness, food insecurity, environmental justice, redlining in housing, and immigrant accompaniment, we aim to improve the lives of those who are marginalized. Every single person, as created in the image of God, is entitled to a happy and dignified life.
Our recent series of articles has highlighted how we further this mission throughout the U.S. by highlighting low-income led organizations that we support in select cities. Now, we want to highlight how restorative justice efforts have made an impact in St. Louis, a city in which the cycle of poverty runs rampant and one that is, unfortunately, no stranger to crime.
What is Restorative Justice (RJ)?
"The restorative justice theoretical framework views crime as a violation of people and relationships. These violations in turn create an obligation to make things right. Restorative justice aims to reestablish the balance that has been offset as a result of a crime. . ." (source)
Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach to crime that prioritizes people and relationships rather than just the law that was broken. Restorative practices seek to repair instances of harm by working towards reconciliation and rehabilitation for those who have been harmed, those who have inflicted harm, and the community at large. It often involves organizing, so long as each party consents, a mediated meeting between the victim and offender of a crime or incident of harm. Oftentimes other community representatives are also in attendance. The goal is for everyone involved to share their perspective of the crime, how it affected them, and what they think can be done to repair the harm caused. This could include taking responsibility, heartfelt apologies, monetary restitution, or other actions to make amends and thus restore justice.
RJ is gaining traction not just in criminal justice, but also in schools. By giving children the opportunity to problem solve a conflict through discourse rather than traditional punishment, it allows both parties involved in the incident to learn the value of dialogue and teaches empathy. Introducing kids to RJ practices early on in life has proven to be a tool in keeping youths out of the criminal justice system.
The heart of RJ is victim-centered, it gives those who have been harmed the opportunity to have an active role in the healing process to reduce feelings of powerlessness. Victims often feel left out of the decision-making process in the aftermath of an incident of harm. RJ recognizes that victims of harm should lead the healing process; that in order to experience authentic justice, they must have the opportunity to express the impact of the harm and determine a possible path forward towards healing. This is typically facilitated through a victim-offender mediation, where the victim and offender meet face-to-face and discuss the occurrence with a mediator and other community members. Other examples of restorative justice programs that have become widely used are family group conferencing and peacemaking circles.
Restorative Justice recognizes that people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, and that often, incidents of harm stem from a person’s own experiences of harm and trauma. RJ provides the offender the opportunity to see the harm that they've caused, take responsibility for their actions, and ultimately begin the work towards reconciliation and redemption.
How Effective is Restorative Justice?
In the U.S. as of 2016, “thirty-five states have adopted legislation encouraging the use of restorative justice for children and adults both before and after prison.” (source)
A study of more than two decades of research on victim-offender mediation (VOM) found that,
"Numerous studies have found uniformly high levels of satisfaction with mediation for both victims and offenders . . . typically 80-90 percent of participants report being satisfied with the process and 90 percent of these meetings resulted in restitution agreements. Of these restitution agreements 80 to 90 percent have been reported as completed.”
But there are even more statistically significant findings:
- 90% of all victims, whether assigned to court or to a VOM, felt they should receive an apology. For victims assigned to a VOM, 72% said their offender had apologized compared with 19% of those assigned to traditional court proceedings. (source)
- 77% of VOM-assigned victims said they felt the apologies they received were sincere, as opposed to 41% of court-assigned victims. (source)
- In a study of RJ with juvenile criminals, "the results evaluating restorative justice programs and practices showed a moderate reduction in future delinquent behavior relative to more traditional juvenile court processing."
- Victims who attended a VOM more often felt that the process was fair (96%), that the offender was held accountable (93%), that their opinion had been adequately considered (94%) and that the offender had apologized (96%). (source)
- RJ practices are also effective in schools. One study in Pittsburgh found that schools that implemented RJ instead of traditional disciplinary measures saw a drop in suspensions, especially for Black students.
- Studies in schools have also found reductions in problematic behavior. For instance, in Texas, one school reported an 84-percent drop in out-of-school suspensions among sixth graders during the first year RJ was introduced, and a 19-percent drop in all suspensions.
While RJ has seen much success when compared to traditional court-led criminal justice proceedings, there are some circumstances in which victims may not feel emotionally prepared for this type of response. For example, RJ programs often move perpetrators to feel remorse; but that is not always the case and if the offender is unwilling to dialogue with those who have experienced harm, a mediated meeting is less likely to be productive. Likewise, if the crime is especially violent, or if the victim experienced serious trauma, they may not be open to a mediated meeting with the offender. RJ is only effective if both the victim and offender are 100% willing and open to go through with it. Nonetheless, the RJ statistics speak to its success -- even in violent cases -- because it gives victims an opportunity to begin the healing process.
Restorative Justice Organizations in St. Louis
Sadly, St. Louis is no stranger to crime. It is consistently ranked as one of the more dangerous cities in the US, with higher rates of violent crime (1,927 per 100,000 people) than the national metropolitan average. While crime does tend to be pervasive in the area, these organizations have made an incalculable, positive difference in the lives of community members affected by it.
- Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU): MCU puts faith into action by developing leaders who move their congregations and communities to change public policy for the common good. MCU's work is diverse from issues such as restoring voting rights and keeping young people out of jail and in school, to their Sacred Conversation on Race (Plus Action) initiative in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson shooting and protests. Through this initiative, MCU used RJ-style meetings in order to, "provide safe and facilitated opportunities for people to share their stories, experiences, and understandings of race and racism." They continue to make great strides in bettering the lives of St. Louisans.
- The Social Action and Virtue Education Foundation (SAVE): SAVE promotes Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline (VBRD) – a Catholic-based approach that teaches kids about virtues and how to repair relationships after conflict. They teach social and emotional education through virtue literacy and restorative practices. This year, the CCHD is funding SAVE’s Virtue Development Circle Program which will introduce VBRD to 30 St. Louis-area schools. They offer general training in restorative justice practices, as well.
Take Action in Your Community
Help us amplify the work of CCHD-supported groups working to bring more effective criminal justice programs to everyone in St. Louis and beyond by sharing this article on social media. Be sure to follow us on Twitter & Facebook for more information about how you can join the work to break the cycle of poverty in your city.
About Poverty USA and CCHD
Poverty USA is an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and was created as an educational resource to help individuals and communities to address poverty in America by confronting the root causes of economic injustice—and promoting policies that help to break the cycle of poverty.
The domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, CCHD helps low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities—and nurtures solidarity between people living in poverty and their neighbors.