How Does Restorative Justice Bring Offenders into Community Instead of Pushing Them Out?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender- Matt
    • Hall Manager- Lauren
    • RAs/Impacted Parties- John, Paul and Isaac
    • 2 Facilitators
  • Disciplinary Measure Pending: Being kicked out of the Residential Hall for drug possession and consumption
  • Referring agent: University Residential Life staff
  • Factual Synopsis: Matt and a friend took LSD and returned to Matt’s residential hall while under the influence. Matt freaked out from the effects of the drug and appeared out of his mind. He was screaming and punching walls and eventually hit two RAs who were trying to help. When the ambulance and police arrived, he hit a police officer before being handcuffed and taken to the hospital.
  • Narrative:

Matt and his friend Garrett had taken a small dose of LSD once before and had a good time, so when they were finished with their end of the term exams, they decided to use one of their free days to do it again. This time, they decided they would take a full dose (tab) each. Matt and Garrett took the LSD and then headed to Zealandia, a popular urban eco-sanctuary in Wellington. About the time they arrived, the drug started to kick in and Matt told Garrett he wasn’t feeling too well. They decided to turn back to Matt’s dorm to ride out the trip in his room. When they got back to the residential hall, they encountered the RA on duty (John) who could tell that Matt was under the influence of drugs. John made a plan to check in on Matt and Garrett every half hour and gave Garrett the phone number for the RA duty phone in case he needed any help.

Matt and Garrett went to Matt’s room where Matt’s trip got worse and worse. Matt later said that he now knows what it feels like to be insane. He felt like he was dying and couldn’t trust Garrett. Soon, he was completely freaking out, yelling and hitting the walls. That is when Garrett called the RAs on the duty phone. John was about to go off duty and was passing the phone on to another RA named Paul when he got the call, so the both went up to Matt’s room. They also contacted Isaac, Matt’s RA.

The RAs went up to Matt’s room and found Matt freaking out, yelling that he was going to die. Paul immediately phoned an ambulance to get medical help. On the phone, he described that Matt was under the influence of drugs and was violently lashing out, throwing furniture and hitting walls. Hearing this, the medical team made the decision to dispatch the police as well.  The RAs took Matt downstairs, where he continued to freak out and lash out. He swung and made contact with John’s face and also hit Isaac. The RAs responded by giving him more space and remaining calm. John worked to minimize the number of other residents who would be impacted by the incident by closing off access from the dining area and the street. When the police officer arrived, Matt took a swing at him and so the officer cuffed him and put him face down on the floor. Eventually, Matt was taken to the hospital where the doctors found that his muscles were reacting as if he had just run a marathon and his kidneys were showing majors signs of distress.

Back at the residential hall, the police demanded to search Matt’s room despite the hall manager’s (Lauren) desire to protect his privacy. The police found the rest of the LSD as well as marijuana.[1]

When we spoke with Matt during the pre-conference, he said he didn’t remember much of what had happened. He said that Garret and he suspected that the LSD they had taken was actually N-Bomb, which can cause memory loss and can be fatal in high doses. He said this really frightened him. Matt shared the story as best he could and said again and again that now he knows what it feels like to go out of your mind. He reiterated that the person he was while on drugs is not who he is and that he couldn’t believe it when he heard he had hit two RAs and an officer. Matt was remorseful and scared of what had happened, but it was clear that the full impact of the incident hadn’t sunk in.

At the conference, the RAs shared how stressful and scary it had been to try to care for Matt while not knowing what he would do next and trying to protect all of the other resident in the hall. Their story showed the circle just how big the job of the RA is. They are students who are asked to be first responders in the most stressful situations, to keep their calm and make quick, informed decisions in the face of the unknown. In this case, the RAs managed to not escalate the situation, by responding with calm, professional compassion even when facing physical harm themselves. Isaac also had some questions for Matt. He said that after it happened, he wondered what he could have done to stop it. Had he missed signs that Matt wasn’t doing ok? Could he have done something in the days, weeks or months before that would have stopped this from happening? Matt listened carefully and responded by affirming that Isaac is a great RA and he is very grateful for him and all the RAs. He said there was nothing he could have done, that it was just a stupid mistake he made and would never make again.

If this case had been handled by the university’s normal discipline procedure, Matt would have been kicked out of the residential hall and would lose the money he and his family had paid for the rest of the year. Matt shared that his family is in a time of great financial stress and his mom is already having to travel to Australia for work to help him pay for tuition as is. If he were kicked out of the hall, his family wouldn’t be able to afford for him to stay in Wellington and he would have to move home, unable to finish the school year. Matt took a gap year before coming to university and described spending a lot of that time alone in his room playing video games. He worried that same pattern would form again and this one decision would ultimately mean he couldn’t graduate university. It could potentially impact his whole life.

Instead of expelling him from the community, the agreement that emerged from the restorative justice conference mostly included actions to better integrate Matt into the residential hall community. Matt described himself as a “shut in” and Isaac expressed the worry that this lack of community connection would make it difficult for others to know if he is ok. John and Paul also shared that some of the other residents were worried about Matt after seeing him freak out. Interacting with the hall community would give the rest of the students the opportunity to get to know Matt and see that he is ok. Towards this goal, Matt agreed to attend several hall events including a BBQ and a Quiz Night. He also agreed to use his design skills (he is a design major) to help out the RAs by designing a banner to go behind the band that will be playing at the hall’s dance.

Lauren was worried about Matt’s mental health and awareness about drug issues moving forward and requested that he have a weekly meeting with the Student Support Coordinator, which Matt agreed to do. He also agreed to a check-in meeting with Lauren and Isaac at the end of the next term to see how things had progressed.

Rather than being pushed out of the community for his mistake, Matt was more fully integrated and supported. This shift, from responding to harm with further harm to responding to harm with support, reparation, and compassion, is at the core of restorative justice’s power to transform communities.

 

[1] At the time of the restorative justice conference, the police had not followed up with Matt about criminal charges for the possession of LSD and marijuana. If they do, the university will work with the police and court system to let them know that a restorative justice process has taken place and hopefully the restorative justice process as well and the contract items Matt is completing will be sufficient. Unfortunately, we were unable to attain the name of the police officer who responded and was hit and therefore could not invite him to participate in the conference. As an impacted party, it would have been ideal to have him participate.

2 thoughts on “How Does Restorative Justice Bring Offenders into Community Instead of Pushing Them Out?

  1. Thank you for this article Lindsey – I’m enjoying continuing to learn how this process works. Just curious, why wasn’t Garrett a part of the circle to provide more insight into what happened and to be Matt’s support person? Is it normal for a offender to have a support person or not? Or did something about the drug connection keep Garrett from being involved? Thanks again – so interesting!

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    • Great question! You are correct that normally the offender is encouraged to have a support person and it would have been great to have Garrett be part of this conference. At the time of the conference, Garrett was out of town and wouldn’t be returning until after classes started again. Both the Hall Manager and Matt felt that it was important to have the process before the new term started in order to start things off on the right note. Because Garrett doesn’t live in the residential halls, it wasn’t necessary to have him go through the restorative justice process from the university perspective, although it would have been ideal. Thanks for reading!

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