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"The public wants to be involved": A roundtable conversation about community and restorative justice

Jan 22, 2013

from the report by Robert V. Wolf for the Center for Court Innovation:

When participants were asked to list the goals of community engagement, six areas attracted broad support:

1.  Empowering communities

While the concept of giving community members more power is a key ingredient of many initiatives, the nature of the power varies. In San Francisco’s Neighborhood Courts, community volunteers have the authority to determine guilt and can even dismiss cases while volunteers on Atlanta’s restorative justice panels can only adjust the terms of a sentence handed down by a court. 

For defenders, empowerment involves education—specifically educating the public about the role of defense organizations and navigating the justice system. “Our goal is to help people understand what we do and clarify our role and to trust us,” said James Berry, of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. “We don’t feel an obligation to promote the police or prosecutors, but we do have an interest in helping people to understand what we do and how we help to balance the equation.”

2. Improving public safety

....Community defenders seek to address public safety by helping link their clients to services and other resources. By improving access to things like drug treatment and job training, defenders provide their clients with the tools they need to avoid offending, which can have a positive impact on community safety. “Our goal in holistic defense is to clearly lower recidivism, there’s no question about it,” Steinberg said.

But defenders are cautious about calling community safety a priority. “I’m not sure that increasing the sense of public safety is necessarily a goal… Because if increasing public safety means taking one of my clients and asking a judge to sentence him to the maximum prison sentence because he’s thought to be a danger, I can’t do that as a public defender,” Steinberg said.

3. Solving community problems

Community justice programs seek to develop new strategies and resources to solve local problems. The underlying idea is that by involving the community, criminal justice agencies can develop more effective and durable solutions....

4. Improving public trust in justice

....Community engagement seeks to repair this lack of confidence by involving communities directly in the production of justice. By eliciting neighborhood opinions through surveys and advisory boards; by relying on community members as volunteers who, for example, supervise restitution crews, staff reparative boards, or organize tenant patrols; and by keeping the community informed about the justice system through newsletters, community meetings, and one-on-one outreach, community justice initiatives use community engagement to increase public confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of police, courts, prosecutors, and other justice institutions....

5. Saving money

With resources increasingly scarce, many participants acknowledged the importance of saving money.

....For instance, Donovan believes community justice, by increasing offender accountability and providing offenders greater support, encourages better outcomes than conventional approaches when it comes to one of the most expensive populations of offenders: serial recidivists. “We had given them every option off the menu, whether it be probation, whether it be diversion, whether it be jail, and yet they were coming back. What could we do? So we started to say, we need … to bring the community into the justice system.”

6. Getting better information

....By building public confidence in justice agencies, community justice makes ordinary citizens more willing to fulfill conventional roles as jurors and witnesses. Jansen says that he explains the benefits of community justice to prosecutors by pointing out that “at the end of the day, we need community members to testify, to proceed with serious cases, to provide us with information [about] what’s going on in that community.”

Read the whole report.

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