None of this should be surprising; that’s how our criminal justice system has designed these facilities. American prisons are built on the idea of retributive justice, where the primary goal is to punish and seek vengeance. It’s a model that aims to incapacitate people who commit crimes and create powerful, painful incentives for them to act right in the future. The bottom line: You harm someone, and we harm you. You hurt others, and you will hurt.
This system also isn’t good for victims of crime. Retribution intentionally damages the offender, but it can also accidentally leave victims with new injuries by neglecting their needs and silencing their voices. In the present system, victims and their loved ones are barely involved in the process of meting out justice. As soon as the crime is committed, a huge professional apparatus kicks in, and a massive, inhuman bureaucracy takes over. The police, lawyers, investigators, jurors and judges all start doing whatever they think is right. Neither the crime victims nor their family members get to ask their own questions, determine the punishment or seek an apology. During a trial, practically everyone talks except the people actually impacted.
After a trial, those convicted of a crime are sometimes legally forbidden to contact the people they hurt, even to offer an apology. The system attempts to shield survivors from unwanted contact with the wrongdoer, but that also robs victims of the opportunity to ask the questions that haunt them: “Why?” “What were you thinking?” “What were my son’s last words?”
As a result, the amount of communication between the two parties is practically nonexistent — except for an impact statement from the victims, delivered right before the guilty party is sentenced.
We know that this system isn’t working. To help cure what ails our justice system, reform advocates say, we need to think differently. We need to think about restoration.
Restorative justice shifts our understanding of crime and punishment and asks us to use a completely different logic. The goal is not to create more damage, but to create more healing — often through a dialogue between a crime survivor and the person who hurt them. The goal is not to add more pain, but to ameliorate as much pain as possible. At the end of the day, the goal is for all parties — and the community itself — to be restored to whatever degree of wellness and wholeness is possible. It seeks accountability from the trespasser, but ultimately healing for everyone involved.
That’s why in these conversations between those who harmed and those who were harmed, there usually isn’t a big audience or large army of professionals — just a facilitator and some support people, maybe five people total. The process involves tremendous emotional and logistical preparation, including trading questions in advance.
These exchanges come out of older, wiser traditions that recognize the many dimensions of harm, and that many threads of connection are severed when someone commits a crime. In these traditions, villagers would sit in circles, discuss the issue and find a just way forward — to restore the dignity and sense of belonging for both the victim and the perpetrator.
Chris was convicted of murder and eventually found himself in San Quentin. The first few years were rough. But then he found a series of programs in prison that introduced him to restorative justice — and for Chris, it changed everything.
But we will still need second, third, and fourth steps — fully implementing the act quickly and effectively, rolling back other lengthy prison sentences (and continuing to do so retroactively to bring home as many people as we safely can), investing in alternatives to incarceration, scaling back systems of mass supervision like probation and parole, reducing barriers for people with criminal records, and so much more.
The First Step Act at least opens the door to begin that wholesale rethinking of our criminal justice system. No longer are retribution and incapacitation the sole aims of our public safety policies. Now, rehabilitation officially matters, too. And for some, nothing is more powerfully rehabilitative than sitting face-to-face with people you have harmed, in an effort to heal.