Q&A: Training Restorative Justice Facilitators to Understand Structural Inequities

Q: How can I help the facilitators I train in my program to understand the structural dimensions of crime? I worry that they are too focused on the interpersonal dimensions of crime and are ignoring the larger harms and roots of conflict in race-, class-, and gender-based systemic inequities.

A: This is a common issue in restorative justice programs around the world and one that is important to work hard to address. Fania DavisAnita Wadhwa, and David Dyck (among others) offer some helpful resources.

This shortcoming in facilitators’ understanding is due in part to the fact that practitioners are generally not trained to think about restorative justice work within a systemic, structural frame of reference, and therefore, by default, tend to focus solely on personal responsibility without understanding the structural roots of the conflict or wrongdoing.

Practitioners need to be trained not only in interpersonal communication skills, but also the ability to recognize and address the way in which crimes and conflict reflect larger systemic problems.

One of Dyck’s recommendations is to teach facilitators theoretical models that will help them to grasp this larger issue. For example, Maire Dugan’s Nested Theory of Conflict provides a framework for understanding interrelated types of conflict in a community. Here is a game from www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com to help your facilitators understand this model.


Q&A Facilitating Circles Online

Question: I want to continue to hold circles with my students/staff during this time of social distancing. I feel we need the connection now more than ever! How can I facilitate a circle through video chat without the ability to actually sit in a circle together or pass a talking piece?

Answer: I agree! Cultivating meaningful connections is more important now than ever before. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to adapt the circle process to the online format. Here are a few things to consider.

  1. Rather than passing one talking piece around the circle, each person can bring their own talking piece to hold when they share. Giving each person the chance to share their talking piece and why they selected it is another opportunity for relationship building. 
  2. Because you aren’t sitting in a circle, it isn’t automatically clear whose turn it is to speak next. You can address this issue by drawing a circle ahead of time and placing the names of participants around the circle. Share the image with the participants before the process so that they know the speaking order. Or, you can also ask each person to say the name of the person they are “passing” the talking piece to after they share. 
  3. You may need to add additional norms or ground rules such as to “mute” when you aren’t speaking, how to indicate that you are “passing” the talking piece without sharing, and what to do when kids, pets, etc. show up in the process. 

For an example of an online circle plan with processes and norms specific to the online context, check out this resource from Loyola University Chicago School of Law or this guide for a virtual circle of support in response to social distancing from Kay Pranis. 

I would love to hear the other solutions readers have identified for facilitating circles online. Please share your ideas



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.