Editor’s Note: The Bedford Citizen asked Communities for Restorative Justice to write an article to help our readers understand the concepts and possibilities inherent in restorative justice.
By Chief Robert Bongiorno, Selectman Margot Fleischman,
C4RJ Director Jennifer Larson Sawin, and C4RJ Chief Case Coordinator Christy Barbee
The ground has been trembling a bit in Bedford lately. Even before the carjacking on Monday, there were appearances of anti-Semitic symbols and worrisome themes cropping up with our young children at play. Many of you may be wondering about the landscape, each other, your neighbors, your students.
Amid this turmoil, there have been signs of real resilience, too. A renewed commitment to welcoming differences that make Bedford strong, and adamant words from school administrators, elected and appointed town officials, police, and community members.
Clearly, harm has been done. The obvious element of harm is the ugliness and unease that results from the appearance of swastikas and symbols that appear to give preeminence to one religious/cultural outlook—especially under clandestine circumstances, with no claimed authorship. But there are also less obvious harms as well: suspicion of one another, negative judgments, and fear of unknown motivations.
Part of Bedford’s resilience is its willingness to look to restorative measures as opposed to purely punitive ones that may not meaningfully meet everyone’s needs. Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ) has been invited to provide a process that will address one incident of harm in recent weeks where those responsible have been identified. Investigations are underway with other incidents.
Restorative justice is a set of principles with a variety of practices, many of them quite simple. People who have done harm gather with those who have been harmed to talk about the hurt, find accountability, and take steps to restore a sense of balance. The guiding premise is this: that crime and wrongdoing are not just violations of law, or the “state,” but of people and relationships. To heal the wounds inflicted by crime and wrongdoing, one must address the harms done to the people who were affected.
These principles have been at work for decades, helping to address harm suffered in places like South Africa, Northern Ireland, and New Zealand. It would not be stretching the point to assert that, without these principles, these countries could still be suffering with grudges, fractured relationships, and deep wounds that characterized chapters of their history.
For 14 years, C4RJ has been working with area police departments to provide a restorative circle process in criminal cases. We work regularly with the Bedford Police Department. Chief Robert Bongiorno serves on our board of directors and leads our Police Council; Bedford Selectman Margot Fleischman also serves on our board. Many volunteers, including Bedford’s Rev. Chris Wendell, work with us to support those affected by harm in our communities.
A restorative circle often brings to the surface some of those not-so-obvious harms that occur when one person or group has offended against another. If Joe eggs your house, for instance, the obvious harm is the defacement of your property. If Joe is caught and arrested for vandalism, he’ll be punished; he may or may not learn anything from that and he will likely never be asked questions that matter to you or your family. But if you opt to meet with him in a restorative justice process, he will learn what it meant to you, the things that would not otherwise be obvious: that you were livid, that you felt targeted, perhaps that this triggered fears from an earlier incident, that your children were terrified, that your neighborhood was on heightened alert.
You will get to ask Joe what the heck he was thinking. Joe will have to think about it, not merely “take the punishment” that is often meted out. You can ask for what you want and need, an explanation, an assurance that it won’t happen again, compensation for the damage in a timely manner. Each circle we carry out culminates in a plan of repair, one that details obligations for the offender. The focus is not punishment, per se; rather, the obligations are intended to put things as right as possible for those who’ve been affected, to provide an opportunity for learning and growth along with a reasonable assurance that the act won’t occur again.
A restorative process is a place where this personal approach can be carried out safely, confidentially, with supporters, and with care. Participation is not easy. We often say that it takes courage to come together in this way. But it can be a profoundly transforming encounter, for everyone involved.
We believe—and ardently hope—that we can be a part of bringing answers and understanding to a concerned Bedford citizenry.
For more on C4RJ, the nonprofit partnership of 12 regional communities and police departments, visit www.C4RJ.com.