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Restorative justice advocates ask for state-level reform

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(The Center Square) – Pennsylvanians familiar with the judicial process portrayed in crime procedurals and TV dramas may soon see criminal justice through a new lens.

That is, an approach that is less punitive and more restorative, advocates say.

The House Judiciary Committee held an informational hearing Tuesday to better understand the restorative justice process initially put forward in a bill by Rep. Chris Raab, D-Philadelphia.

Raab said the bill wasn’t quite ready to move forward through the legislative process after hearing from residents about its shortcomings.

“I had not done what I had said that I had done for some time, which was listen to the people closest to the pain, and I got feedback – candid, heartfelt feedback – that we can do better,” he said

To get closer to the mark, the committee heard testimony from those who already work within the realm of restorative justice, many of whom have either been through the process themselves, both as victims and offenders.

Restorative justice is described as a victim-centered alternative to the carceral system, and is typically carried out within communities rather than in the courtroom.

While its sanctioned use within national judiciary bodies is a relatively recent development, the practice has long been used by indigenous communities both in the United States and across the globe. Restitution is determined on a case-by-case basis, assessing both the needs of the victim and the best path toward rehabilitation for the offender.

“Where the criminal legal system asks us what law has been broken, who did it, and what do they deserve, restorative justice asks us who’s been harmed, what are their needs, and who’s obligated to address those needs? It looks beyond the law to the people,” said Barbie Fisher, a restorative justice practitioner.

Fisher knows the process firsthand. After an intruder broke into her home and sexually assaulted her, she said the restorative justice process helped her speak about the experience and assist others struggling to navigate the system themselves.

Advocates say that the rehabilitation offered by restorative justice can get offenders the help they need to change their trajectory, which can range between basic necessities for those who have committed theft to therapy for those who have committed acts of physical and sexual violence.

Furthermore, it provides an opportunity for victims who don’t want to put their offenders behind bars, either because of a personal relationship or out of concern for their future.

Jody Dodd, restorative justice facilitator for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said that 80% of victims offered the option of restorative justice choose it. If the work is completed, offenders can move forward without prosecution and often have their arrest records expunged.

Dr. Reverend Donna Lawrence Jones has seen the results. Her group of citizen advocates in Philadelphia has shown a mere 19% recidivism rate as compared to 56% in the traditional justice system. The group included community members who trained and volunteered to be a part of the process. She says it helps to interrupt a cycle that might otherwise lead to further violence.

“I would have a hard time counting the number of people who would have retaliated if not for the restorative justice process,” said Jones.

Philadelphia does not refer crimes involving firearms to restorative justice programs.

For the 20% of offenders whose victims do not elect to engage in the restorative justice process, entry into the carceral system predicts a very different path. Currently, the cost of incarceration for a single prisoner per year is $38,000. As of March 31, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections listed over 40,000 prisoners.

Kempis Songster, Transformative Healing and Restorative Justice manager, described his experience within that system. He served 30 years in prison, from age 15 to 45, for his participation in a murder.

When it was ruled that sentencing children to life without parole was unconstitutional, he became eligible for release. Once paroled, he began to put into practice what he describes as the transformative power of restorative justice.

He talked about the importance of an offender understanding the impact of their actions within the community and taking accountability with support from that community, creating connections to the crime they don’t make in prison.

“No amount of punishment that I’ve served had birthed this sense of consciousness in me or this deeper sense of social responsibility within me,” he said.