How Does Restorative Justice Help Offenders Avoid a Downward Spiral?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender- Micah
  • Hall Manager- Lauren
  • RAs/Impacted Parties- John, Paul and Beth
  • 2 Facilitators

Disciplinary Measure Pending: Being evicted from the Residential Hall

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: While suffering from extreme stress in his school, work, and relationship life, Micah drank to the point of severe intoxication in his dorm room. While intoxicated, he broke his window attempting to illegally access a balcony, was extremely aggressive towards a neighbor and volatile with RAs, and ultimately tried to jump out the window. Police were called and took him to the station for a mental health assessment.

Note: The neighbor who was involved opted to not participate in the Restorative Justice process. Restorative Justice is voluntary for all participants.


Micah told the co-facilitator and me that he takes pride in his ability to do it all. Before this incident, Micah was working 35 hours per week at two jobs on top of being a full-time student studying architecture. During the pre-conference, Micah described that on a normal day, he would go to classes, get done at about 3pm, go to work, work until 11pm, eat dinner and then start his homework, leaving him only a couple hours to sleep before he got up to do it all again. When it felt like he was losing control of something, like when his grades started to slip, he would respond by piling more on. He was good at his jobs. His manager at the supermarket promoted him and gave him more hours, so when school wasn’t going well, he threw himself into more work. He was operating like this for a while, on very little sleep, ignoring the issues with his school work and piling more on to not deal with it when he found out his long distance girlfriend cheated on him. Micah described it as a sort of breaking point. Once his personal life was in shambles too, he just couldn’t take it.

To deal with the stress, Micah started drinking. He drank a few bottles of wine alone in his room. He attempted to reach out to a friend to talk, but she was busy with school work, so he continued to drink. Eventually, he tried to get out on the balcony by crawling through his window and in the process, accidentally put his head through the glass. At that point, he went down to tell the RA on duty (Beth) about the broken glass. Beth could immediately see that Micah was not doing well. He was angry with his next door neighbor and was screaming at him. Eventually, both Beth and the neighbor were in the room and Micah was physically blocking them from leaving. He continued screaming at the neighbor and was highly emotional. Beth texted another RA (Paul) for help. After Paul arrived, Beth and Paul were able to get the neighbor out of the room. What followed was over an hour of emotional volatility with Micah screaming, crying, and disclosing information about his girlfriend who had cheated. Paul and Beth were unable to get Micah to settle down or go to sleep so fearing for his safety and the safety of others, called the Hall Manager Lauren who advised them to call the police as well. Another RA who was in the hall that night, John, also arrived to help escort the police to the room.

The police initially decided that Micah wasn’t a threat and exited the room along with Lauren, Beth, and Paul. John was in the room alone with Micah when all the sudden he stood up, looked out the window and said, “John, I’m going to jump out this window and there is nothing you can do to stop me.” John called out for the police who came into the room and after a physical struggle, were eventually able to handcuff Micah and take him to the station for a mental health assessment.

Micah was given a room outside of the hall to stay in and temporarily banned from the hall while arrangements were made for the restorative justice meeting. He was also instructed to begin meeting regularly with the Student Support Coordinator (Jenny). Jenny helped Micah to get extensions for his assignments from his professors so that he was able to take some time to recover from the breakdown.

Throughout the pre-conference and conference, it was clear that Micah has some more serious mental health issues that contributed to his inability to adequately track the conversation and his manic behavior. Mental health concerns can add a difficult component to restorative justice because the process is not therapy and cannot provide the full services that the offender needs. What is important is to remember that behavior communicates needs. In this case, Micah’s breakdown signals a need for greater emotional and well-being support through regular meetings with a counselor. Therefore, when we talked about what needed to happen next to repair the harms and make things right, the first thing that was suggested was for Micah to get the counselling support required in order to not have a breakdown like this again. He ended up agreeing to a weekly meeting with a counselor in addition to the weekly meeting with the Jenny, the Student Support Coordinator and expressed that both of these meetings would be very helpful.

Restorative justice cannot operate without access to other resources to help fulfill the needs that so often fuel crime. The gift of restorative justice is that the process is able to surface those needs so that they can be addressed and so that the response to the crime or rule violation does not cause further harm. In Micah’s case, if this incident had happened last year before the University began using Restorative Justice, Micah would have been immediately evicted from the Residential Hall with no further contact or support. He would have been cut off from his community of friends, would not have the encouragement or structure to pursue counselling, and would need to find a new place to live. With the overwhelm Micah was already facing, my guess is that these added stressors would have resulted in a downward spiral and further breakdowns.

We see this so often in the mainstream justice system. An offender commits a crime to fulfill a need (whether that is for food, or safety, or mental health support, or clothing for an interview, or respect) and often the crime is a last resort and signals that parts of the person’s life are in serious disarray. Instead of relieving the stressors that led to the crime by working to identify the needs behind the behavior, the criminal justice system often just adds to the stress with fines, curfews, loss of privileges or incarceration. Rather than finding a way to redress the harm, further harm is caused.

Instead, in Micah’s case, he was provided with a different place to live near his friends, but away from the room with the window that could access the balcony, he decided to leave both jobs and focus on his school work, he began attending weekly counselling and support meetings to get the help he needs, and he has committed to giving back positively to the residential hall.

Restorative Justice and Grit

A common theme in current educational discourse is “grit.” Over the last few years, I have noticed a constant stream of news articles, podcasts, TED Talks, and studies looking at the importance of grit and how we can help students develop it.

The idea behind grit is that we need to start encouraging students to take pride in working hard to improve rather than only giving praise for what a student has accomplished. Articles directed at parents talk about shifting your language in praising your child from “You are so smart!” to “You did a great job on this, you must have worked really hard!” A child who is told she has achieved something because she is smart will begin to see that intelligence as an innate, fixed thing.  When the child encounters something challenging or beyond her ability, she may not see that she can work hard, practice, and improve her ability. Many smart children end up feeling afraid to try something more challenging because the idea of failure is scary and compromises their self-image as a “smart kid.”

I have certainly seen aspects of this show up in my own life, even into adulthood. The first time I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, I didn’t tell many people because I was afraid of the embarrassment I would feel if I didn’t get it. When I was named an alternate, it took a lot of self-convincing and making a conscious decision that I wanted to develop my grit to give it a second try. Just a few weeks ago when I entered the 3 minute thesis completion, I did the same thing. I didn’t tell my advisor or friends I was competing because I knew I would feel embarrassed if I didn’t win. When I turned in a first draft of a chapter of my thesis to my advisor and received a red-marked copy back, I felt that same feeling of shame. I want to be the smart kid, the perfect kid; that is how I feel pride and self-worth. When I don’t achieve that “smart kid” status, I instead feel shame.

Focusing on grit allows us to shift the source of pride from the achievement to the honest effort. From the grit perspective, I should feel pride that I tried again and applied for the Fulbright a second time. I should feel pride that I took my adviser’s comments and turned in another draft, and another, and another, improving it each time.

I think this re-frame that focusing on grit provides also applies to restorative justice. In restorative justice, there aren’t “good people” and “bad people,” there are just people, who frequently make mistakes. If our sense of self and pride are determined by a single act, people can be labelled “criminals” and pushed out of society. There is no room for putting in the hard work to repair the harms and improve yourself. This is what restorative justice provides. When an offender goes through restorative justice, he/she has the chance to take pride in putting in the work to make things right. Just like students who take a test aren’t “smart” or “dumb,” a person who commits a crime isn’t a “criminal” and a person who follows the law isn’t a “good citizen.” We are all just working hard to do better, whether it is on a test, or a paper, or in a relationship, or in life. The pride is in not running from a struggle or letting it consume you, but instead putting in the hard work do better.

Another important point is that the hard work cannot be done alone. We all need help to get better. I recently listened to a Freakenomics episode called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” The episode argued that “talent” is overrated and deliberate practice is the true secret to excellence. The really important piece of the argument was that the practice cannot be doing the same thing over and over again. We all need mentors guiding us and supporting us in order to actually improve. I could sit at my computer writing and writing, but without my adviser’s insight and suggestions, I likely wouldn’t get much better. Similarly, people who have committed a crime often can’t just work hard and make things right. Often, the criminal behavior itself stems from an unmet need whether that need be financial, physical, social or emotional. Part of an effective justice response needs to involve people who can help identify those needs and find ways to fulfil those needs in pro-social ways. Then, with support, the offender can take pride in working hard to make things right.

Three Minute Thesis

I recently entered the Three Minute Thesis competition at Victoria University. The Three Minute Thesis competition challenges postgraduate students to explain their thesis research to a non-specialist audience in just 3 minutes. The goal is to clearly outline your research, engage the audience, and make them want to learn more. I thought it sounded like a really fun exercise, so entered the School of Government competition. I was surprised to win the School of Government heat and was even more surprised to go on to win first place in the Victoria University school-wide competition. In September, I will be traveling to compete against the top Master’s students from across New Zealand. The competition is a great exercise in sharing research in a relatable way and was an awesome opportunity to hear about the great work being done by other postgraduate students.

If you have 3 minutes and would like to hear a bit more about my research, check out the video below. Here is a link to the media release about the competition and my presentation.


Three Minute Thesis Finalists

Watch my Three Minute Thesis presentation here:

Crime Survivors Speak

“A survey of US crime victims’ attitudes towards crime and punishment just came out: among the interesting findings is that, by a margin of three to one, victims of crime believe that prison makes people more likely to commit crimes than to rehabilitate them, and that people should be held accountable through mechanisms other than prison.”

The Alliance for Safety and Justice recently released a report on victims’ views on safety and justice. The Alliance commissioned the National Survey of Victims’ Views to fill in gaps in knowledge about who crime victims are, what their experiences are with the criminal justice system, and their views on public policy. Overall, the results indicate that victims are far more concerned with receiving adequate support, preventative measures, and offenders being rehabilitated than with severe punishment.

I highly recommend reading the entire report here.

“Seven in ten victims prefer that prosecutors focus on solving neighborhood problems and stopping repeat crimes through rehabilitation, even if it means fewer convictions and prison sentences.”