Q: How is it decided what cases are eligible for the restorative justice program? I’m assuming there first has to be a formal charge by the police or another party. Is it then up to the police department, or the court, to decide if the restorative process is an option? I’d guess that if the contract with restorative justice is not fulfilled the case reverts back to the courts?
A: One of the benefits of restorative justice is that if the offender is successful in the process, there will be no criminal conviction on his or her record. The majority of the cases the organization I work with handles are referred directly by police officers. The officer encounters the offender at the scene and determines whether or not the case is a good fit for restorative justice. The offender has to take responsibility for his or her actions in order for the case to be a good fit. Additionally, the victim has to agree to the process being handled through restorative justice. The incident does not have to be a first-time offense, and there are no age restrictions. The only types of offenses that we do not accept are traffic violations, domestic abuse (because of the power differential), and crimes of a sexual nature (because of mandatory reporting laws).
Cases can also be referred by judges, or as part of diversion requirements for juvenile offenders accepted into the DA diversion program. After we receive the referral, we begin intakes to determine whether or not the offender is taking responsibility and if there are other mental or circumstantial factors that may require additional support. After we accept the case, we assign facilitators who carry the case through the pre-conference and conference.
At the end of the conference, the offender and the other participants in the community group conference sign a contract with 3-5 items and a deadline, things the offender agrees to do to repair the harm and make things right. The offender then has until the end of the contract to turn in proof of completion of all items to our office. Once all items are turned in, we do a search in the police database to ensure that the referred person did not offend while under contact (we do not count traffic tickets, but any other offense, regardless of whether it is related to the initial charge). If the contract is complete and there is no additional offense, the case is closed. We inform the officer, and there is no formal charge or criminal conviction on the offender’s record. If the contract is not complete or if the offender offended under contract, the case is referred back to the police department (or diversion officer or judge) and it proceeds through the traditional court system, resulting in a criminal conviction on his or her record.