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Restorative justice focuses on healing, not punishment

(CJ photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ photo by Kari Travis)

Panelists at Campbell Law School offered a different path to resolving conflicts — in the criminal justice system and in disciplinary situations in K-12 schools.

The Restorative Justice Panel featured four panelists Oct. 16 at Campbell law school, where the Restorative Justice Clinic resides. Panelists included Jon Powell, Campbell law professor and director of the Restorative Justice Clinic; Colleen Fitzpatrick, a former educator and coordinator for Restorative Practice in the Wake County Public School System; and Nichad Davis and Morgan Bridgers, both Campbell law students involved with the clinic.

The focus of the panel was on restorative justice, which emphasizes bringing victims and offenders together to resolve conflict rather than prioritizing punishment.    

“Crime causes harm, and sometimes the very system that we have developed to address crime causes harm,” Powell said.

Powell described the practice as addressing different questions than are typical within the traditional criminal justice system. The traditional method asks what law was broken, who did it, and what do they deserve. The restorative practice, on the other hand, asks who has been hurt, how have they been hurt, and what do they need?

“It is a theory of justice that recognizes crime and wrongdoing not only breaks laws but harms people, relationships, and communities,” Powell said. “The practice of restorative justice is the practices we implement to try and address those harms.”

Oftentimes, restorative justice requires bringing people together to find a resolution that’s healing. It’s a practice that focuses less on punishment and more on resolution.

Bridgers said she first approached restorative justice with some skepticism.

“For the first two or three weeks, I told Professor Powell about this, I said this is not my thing. I felt like I was pretty much talking to a counselor at times when we had circles,” Bridgers said. “It was very much outside of my comfort zone.”

It was only after Bridgers got involved with prison circles, a practice of restorative justice, did she start to understand. Bridgers participated in a handful of prison circles, which changed how she viewed the restorative justice practice.

“Honestly, I thought this was a very liberal approach, and at that moment I just put politics aside, because it’s not about politics,” Bridgers said. “It’s about meeting people’s needs.”

In prison circles, inmates share what they have done and how they ended up where they are. The inmates also talk about how they’re working to better themselves.

Bridgers and Davis host circles at Knightdale High School in Wake County. At-risk students, including those who have faced past suspensions, participate in these restorative justice circles and work through their conflicts. Unlike mediation, circles aren’t reactive to conflicts but instead are a proactive way to address the root of the problem.

Davis got involved with the restorative justice clinic because he was frustrated with what he saw as structural inequalities in the criminal justice system. He perceived a school-to-prison pipeline, and he wanted to help children who run afoul of the law.

“What we are doing at Knightdale is trying to implement large scale cultural change in the way that we discuss school disciplinary policy,” Davis said.

Fitzpatrick, an educator for more than 20 years, saw the prevalence of punitive measures in schools and how they weren’t working to resolve conflicts. She started implementing restorative justice practices in her classroom and is now helping Wake County schools do the same for their students.

“The kids I’m educating, they come with a lot of trauma,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like for me to be an effective educator, I need to address the trauma they’re bringing.”

Fitzpatrick said the kind of trauma the kids are bringing to school is often a reflection of people in their family who are involved with the juvenile or adult justice systems.

“They bring those problems with them to school and you can’t get to education if you don’t help them with their social or emotional needs,” Fitzpatrick said. “I see that in 23 years the need seems to be growing. I’ve used it in kindergarten, preschool, all the way up to seventh and eighth grade.”

Powell said during his time as a criminal defense attorney and working in prisons he has yet to meet a prisoner who, at some point, wasn’t a victim.

“That and me being a backseat psychologist helps me understand that pure punishment for offenders creates a lot of resentment because in their mind they’re being punished for being a victim,” Powell said.