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For restorative justice, the devil is in the details

Apr 26, 2013

from the column by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor in Oakland Local:

....The ordinance makes provision for existing agencies or non-profits to run the restorative justice component on a case-by-case referral basis, with instructions that the contracted program “may seek to involve the victim as well as the offender” in the restorative justice process. In addition the contracted program both makes the decision as to what will it take to bring restoration as well as to ultimately sign off on whether or not restoration was done.

Since that is one of the basic tenets or restorative justice—to bring victim and offender together to restore the whole—it would seem that the programs would almost always bring in the victims, as well as let the victims take the lead in deciding the restorative action. 

It’s the “victim property owner or possessor” approval part—both in allowing a tagger to enter the restorative justice and in ultimately deciding how that justice will be determined—that I have a bit of a problem with.

Although there appear to be enough checks and balances in Oakland’s anti-graffiti ordinance, I worry about the setting of a legal precedence that allows the victims of a crime to determine the punishment. There are too many ways that this could be abused.

But far more important, giving that power to victims could lead to the opposite problem: opening the door for the perpetrators or their friends use violence or threats of violence against the original victims to coerce them into going easy on the perp’s punishment. That’s not an idle possibility in many of our high-crime neighborhoods, where intimidation of citizen victims is often the rule rather than the exception.

Clearly, neither of these possible outcomes were the intention of Council member Nancy Nadel, who worked on putting restorative justice into Oakland ordinance for many years. But Ms. Nadel is no longer on Council—the graffiti ordinance was passed at the end of her final term in office—and so she’s not around to help tweak the program and remove any possible bad effects.

When it approved the final text of the anti-graffiti ordinance last December, the Council deliberately left it up to the City Administrator to work out the kinks and the details of implementation.

I hope that the Administrator’s office take these concerns into account, and that other members of the Council keep them in mind when reviewing the final program and overseeing its implementation.

Restorative justice is a good idea in principle, and one that could do much good in Oakland. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Read the whole column.

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