How does restorative justice counter biases?

Over the last couple months, I have started interviewing restorative justice facilitators as part of my research.  The insight I have gained from these conversations has been incredible and I look forward to sharing more as I write up my findings.

Most of the facilitators I have interviewed are in New Zealand, but I am also reaching out to a few facilitator friends from Colorado. Recently, during one of those conversations, a facilitator told the story of a case she appreciated in part because of the role she saw the restorative justice process play in countering biases and stereotyping.

I was the case coordinator for this incident, so I remember it well. It was two young boys who had been throwing rocks over the fence in their backyard into the busy street beside their house. One large rock hit the windshield of a young woman’s car, causing significant damage to the car and fear and stress for the woman.

The facilitator talked about how she thought if this case had gone through court, any bias the woman held about Latino boys would have been reinforced, and the same would be true for the boy’s families in regards to the young white woman. Instead, an open, honest conversation created the opportunity for those biases to be challenged and for the people involved to encounter each other as complex fellow human beings with shared needs and experiences.  The quote I captured from the interview explains this dynamic better than I can, so I will share it here.

“The boys, they were both from Latino families. The conversation about racial difference or bias or any of that wasn’t part of the conference, but I know that inherently because there was a Latino and white family on different sides of the conference and they were meeting each other and there was a police officer there, that there is so much opportunity to prevent bias entrenchment and further stereotyping.

I think about the restitution process this would have gone through in court. Whether it was criminal court or small claims court even. These people would know, even if they never met each other, they would know this is the name of the hooligan who damaged my car that I worked so hard to buy. And any already held stereotypes a person had about youth, or about Latino youth, or about male Latino youth, this would be an opportunity for this woman and her mother to say ‘Oh, these awful kids, who I now have to go to court to get money back from.’ And ‘Oh look there is more Latino youth on the street and maybe they are going to get up to the same type of mischief and I never received an apology and they don’t care about how it impacted me.’ All of those thoughts that people have naturally about people they are in court with just have the opportunity to flourish and there is nothing to stop that, nothing to counter that in a court process that I know of.

And then on the other side, here are two very young boys who could be taken to court and their parents held accountable for this dollar amount that they owe. And those parents then have the potential to be like, ‘This mean white woman taking our sons to court, don’t they know how hard our family works for this money?’…. Any interaction just has the potential to escalate and entrench those biases and stereotypes people hold already.

And at the root of all of this is that interaction with the police officer. People might feel like the officer targeted their kids or spoke to them unfairly in that brief interaction, but then they have this opportunity to talk about it and for the police officer to share his gratitude for their honesty. It isn’t about targeting your sons because they are Latino boys who did something wrong, it is because someone’s car is damaged and he is commending them for telling the truth. All of those things have the potential to go a very different way.”

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