For the past two weeks, former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus has been teaching a short course at Grinnell about restorative justice. This past Monday, Ternus opened her last class to the public, giving a talk entitled “Restorative Justice.” Ternus then spoke with S&B reporter Kelly Pyzik about our nation’s current criminal justice system.
First, could you tell me a little bit about the short course you taught at Grinnell the past two weeks?
The purpose of the course was to introduce students to the principles of restorative justice and their historical roots, to discuss current restorative justice programs and applications of restorative principles and to compare how our country currently addresses conflict and wrongdoing with how we might address those matters using a more restorative approach.
What is the one thing you most hope your students took away from the course?
I hope my students will think more critically about how our society deals with wrongdoing and the impact our choices have on the victim, the offender and our communities and that my students will actively work toward improvements that take a more restorative approach.
How can we open society’s mind to the ineffectiveness of a punitive justice system?
We must find opportunities to share with our family, friends and elected representatives the true impact of our “get tough on crime” policy. While many violent offenders need to be incarcerated, the United States imprisons nonviolent offenders at a staggering rate, with little effect on public safety. We must inform others that sending more and more offenders to prison produces more and more individuals who will not have the ability to become well-functioning members of our communities because simply punishing offenders does not rehabilitate them. When offenders are not rehabilitated, their families and children suffer as well, amplifying the human and societal costs of our punitive justice system.
In your class on Monday, you talked about how in current criminal processing, victims of a crime are very uninvolved and in some ways neglected. How can criminal processing better meet the needs of victim?
The criminal justice system could better meet the needs of victims by providing to them an opportunity to talk to the offender face to face, if the victim wants to do so; by timely informing the victim of the progress of the criminal case and seeking his or her input; by offering services to address the trauma the victim has suffered and by simply acknowledging in a respectful and caring manner the victim’s emotions and needs in any interaction with the victim.
What do you think is the purpose of the ways offenders are continually punished after their sentences ends—for example, the difficulty they encounter in finding employment and obtaining financial aid for higher education, etc? Do you think this purpose is achieved effectively?
In my opinion, laws that take away offenders’ opportunities for public assistance or to fully participate in our democracy, for example, not allowing felons to vote, serve the sole purpose of punishing offenders. Ironically, while the public expects offenders to mend their ways and become productive members of our society, these laws work against their ability to be successfully reintegrated into their communities. I think these laws, unfortunately, are very effective in punishing offenders in a vengeful and counterproductive way. Offenders’ difficulties in obtaining employment reflect our culture’s stigmatizing view of crime, which further reduces offenders’ chances for rehabilitation and their families’ prospects for economic support.