Professor Mark Umbreit, founding director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota, delivered the Scholars’ Convocation this Wednesday at noon in JRC 101. His visit was sponsored by the Peace Studies Program. Leah Lucas sat down with him for a Q and A.
Dr. Umbreit, can you explain your work with restorative justice to someone that is not familiar with this field?
Restorative justice is kind of like going back to the future. It draws on values and principles that are deeply a part of many cultures around the world—actually, even here in the United States. It views crime and violence as a wound within communities and recognizes that justice requires healing, as well as accountability. In a very practical sense, restorative justice is about providing opportunities for those most directly affected by crime and violence— victims and their families, offenders and their families, the community—an opportunity to come face to face with different forms of communication, mediation and dialogue. In particular, it uses peace-building circles—which come from a Native American tradition in this country—used by some 450 tribes.
When I first began to be involved in restorative justice during the mid-1970s, I was one of just a handful of people. Restorative justice began just within the juvenile justice system and we had no idea that it would expand into a global community movement, a social movement, which it has. Today, it is endorsed by the United Nations, by the European Union, the American Bar Association, and many former critics are now supportive. On one hand it is still not mainstream justice—we are still a very retributive society in our court system. However, on the other hand, it has developed in ways that are incredible and have blunted the growth of the more retributive approach.
One of the key motives of restorative justice is seeking to find peace through dialogue. How does this function exactly?
There are many forms of dialogue and any kind of dialogue is good. However, restorative dialogue includes preparation of the parties beforehand—you do not just put them together, but there is also a focus on repair of the harm, either mentally or physically. The session then is not just talking; it is working to repair the harm. Restorative dialogue is not about trying to see eye-to-eye—to convince someone to see the truth of the other person. People with strong feelings have their own truth and they are acting from that truth. Even if we disagree with that truth, it is important that we try to understand it and find the common ground so that we can build a pathway to peace. Restorative justice, therefore, is about finding the humanity in a person that you disagree with. You can disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable.
What are some arguments in favor of restorative justice?
Some people get the mistaken idea that restorative justice is somehow lenient on people that commit crimes. A lot of what is typically thought of as harsh punishment—locking someone up and putting them in jail—has many unintended consequences. For people living on the street who have a rough life day-to-day, who face injustice all the time, going to prison, while they don’t want it—I wouldn’t want it, you wouldn’t either—is like a time-out. In addition, there are certain status arrangements in prison that can allow them to get away with more in prison than they would on the streets.
Furthermore, we pay 30 to 50 or 60,000 dollars a year to keep them in prison. And oftentimes the person who is victimized by their crime does not get any compensation. It just doesn’t make any sense. We need prisons as sort of an ultimate step for the most severe offenders because we just do not know what else to do, but for many offenders—50% or more of the prisoners in the system currently—there are other ways of holding them accountable that promote a greater sense of justice in order to build peace within communities and families. It is important to note that 98% of cases that use restorative justice dialogue are not the most violent crimes; rather, they are more common crimes such as fights, burglary, vandalism or less severe assaults.
Restorative justice at its core is not rocket science, it is very practical; it is bringing back a lot of the best of what we have given up of the old ways of dealing with conflict and injustice, and blending that with the best of what we have learned in the modern way, but with a lot more humility.
How does this model of restorative justice function in different areas of the world and what is the status of legal support for restorative justice, both in the U.S. and around the world?
When I go to do work in other countries, I do not go there thinking that I have this perfect model of peace-building and conflict resolution for them—not at all. Instead, I go there because I am invited to go there, first. I go in listening to what they need and their concerns in order to share what we have learned from the practice of restorative justice. We engage in dialogue in a very open way, talking about the things we have learned, the unintended consequences and most importantly, if they are interested, presenting restorative justice in a way that is culturally grounded. For example, the work I am doing right now with the UN Development Program in Turkey looks very different than what you would see in the U.S., Canada, or Europe.
In terms of policy support for restorative justice, this is where the U.S. is way behind the curve and it reflects our culture in many ways. Canada has done better than us and Europe has leapfrogged us by requiring new states of the European Union to have laws supporting restorative justice through victim mediation. The strength of the United States is that we have a lot of great programs at a community and grassroots level, but we don’t have the policy yet developed.