‘Dismantling the school to prison pipeline’

by Alexandria Mason

Alexandria Mason Hard News Photo

O’Keefe Middle School’s restorative justice circle facilitators designed and completed this painting. (Alexandria Mason)

Correctional facilities, community centers and schools around Dane County have been incorporating the use of restorative practices with juvenile and adult offenders.

Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

Correctional institutions around Wisconsin are implementing rehabilitative measures through apology letters from offenders to their victims, victim impact classes and victim speaking opportunities. The most common method is restorative dialogue circles with offenders, victims of crime and anyone else who may have been impacted by offenders’ actions.

“Offenders and victims find it very beneficial to talk about the impact the crime had on their life, and what the loss has meant for them,” Jonathan Scharrer, the clinical instructor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Law’s Restorative Justice Project “It allows them to get questions answered on something that has happened when the only person that really knows what happened and what the loved one’s last moments were is the offender.”

In the clinic Scharrer oversees, law students engage in victim- and survivor-initiated dialogue requests with offenders, typically in sensitive crimes and crimes of severe violence. Students help prepare offenders to meet with their victims.The process can begin anytime after the offender has been sentenced; preparing them can take anywhere from several months to three years.

“I’m really always surprised by how impressive that transformation can be sometimes with its ability to humanize people and to see each other as people rather than anonymous faces. It puts a different spin and perspective on the action itself,” said Scharrer.

Restorative justice takes on a different form for lesser offenses and juvenile offenders, and is more available to younger people. The YWCA has partnerships with the Madison Metropolitan School District as well as Dane County and Time Bank to offer restorative justice programs for youth across the Madison area in both middle and high schools and works towards reducing disparities in the criminal justice system.

Youth facing lesser charges such as graffiti, theft, trespassing or disorderly conduct have the option of going through a restorative justice program rather than facing a judge and court and possible fines or sentencing. The youth participate in reflective dialogue circles that are led by a diverse group of students called ‘circled keepers’.  These diverse groups can represent those participating in the circles.

The goal is to give participants the opportunity to process and understand their actions and those of others.

“Usually, the question of why the incident happened is never asked. How are we going to heal our communities when we don’t even know why it’s happening?” said the YWCA restorative justice programming coordinator Eugenia Highland.

The circles are completely voluntary to youth and focus on creating opportunities for them to address and repair the harm done by their actions. Youth also decide who to include in their circle. Once their process is complete, Highland says students “can walk away with a better sense of themselves” without evidence of the incident on their records.

“Just by the youth not having to go through a criminalization experience is making a huge change in their identity development and how they see themselves. It’s building relationships and literally dismantling the school to prison pipeline,” said Highland.

According to the YWCA, 86 percent of participants in the program showed attitude and behavior improvements and 75 percent felt closer to their schools.

O’Keefe Middle is one of 16 schools in Madison using restorative justice practices.  Principal Tony Dugas believes that restorative practice programs allow students and staff to draw closer together and create more inclusive learning spaces. Dugas has implemented such programs in schools he has worked at in both Boston and Washington, D.C.

“When you have a chance to share your story you start seeing you have a lot in common with the person sitting across from you,” Dugas said.  “The restorative process isn’t always about a consequence, it’s about learning. It’s about helping people to look at life differently. ”

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