What is your perspective on restorative justice?
A restorative justice approach compels offenders to recognize the consequences of their actions, which can result in lower recidivism rates. Almost half of Oregon’s prison population is locked up for violating probation or post-prison supervision, so keeping people from reoffending not only creates safer communities but also has staggering financial implications.
The Oregon Department of Corrections’ budget is more than $1.5 billion; each prisoner costs more than $30,000 per year — more than triple what we spend per student on K-12 education. Lowering recidivism rates could allow us to invest more in K-12 education, resulting in a better-educated population that would strengthen the state’s economy and save even more money over time by decreasing reliance on entitlement and social safety net programs.
Why are programs like this worth pursuing?
In the vast majority of cases, these men and women will be released into our communities. They face the daunting task of forging a life outside after years of incarceration. Imagine the barriers after serving a lengthy sentence: criminal record, lack of education, lack of contemporary work skills and no professional network.
Even worse, most are alone. Most prisoners, especially those serving long sentences, never receive a visitor, so programs like this are often their only tether to the outside world. Each visit strengthens that outside connection and lessens the odds that participants will land back in prison.
Of course, there are circumstances in which restorative justice approaches may not be appropriate, such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Critics have raised concerns about restorative justice focusing on the betterment of the offender rather than the well-being of the victim, though I’d add that studies suggest participants tend to be highly satisfied with restorative justice programs.
If you had a magic gavel, what changes would you make to our criminal justice system?
I would restore judicial discretion in sentencing. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, we don’t have a system that takes into account both the conduct and character of the offender, so our prison populations swell.
One of the things we’re learning about mandatory minimum sentencing policies is that longer sentences have diminishing returns. The longer the sentence, the barriers to a prisoner’s successful reentry to society increase. So we need to ask if we’re really getting the benefits of these lengthy sentences or simply exacting vengeance.
Thoughtful sentencing practices and programs that reduce recidivism are not do-gooder policies. They are safety policies. When you reduce recidivism, you reduce the number of victims and the costs of reincarceration. The restorative justice approach doesn’t just help victims and our communities, it restores the integrity of the criminal justice system.
This article originally appeared with the article, "Questions of Justice," in the summer 2016 issue of Willamette magazine.