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Social Justice

Rethinking Crime and Punishment: Restorative Justice in the Hudson Valley

A program in Ulster County seeks repair, rather than retribution, for criminalized behavior. Can it be a model for a fairer criminal justice system?

The Ulster County Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center, in Kingston.
Lothrop Associates LLP
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David, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, sat facing the rest of the circle and began to speak. He remained uninterrupted for several minutes as the five others seated in the room—one of whom was his mother—listened intently, staring at him through masked faces. The blue polka-dotted carpet and clean white walls conjured the image of a therapist’s office, but between the respectful atmosphere and the circular arrangement of the chairs, the whole affair felt more like a support group.

With the timidity one would expect from a teenager, David recounted the shoplifting incident that got him into trouble. One month earlier, he had been arrested after an employee caught him stealing a Halloween mask from a local store. The manager on duty immediately called the police, and David was held at the store until an officer arrived. With little incident, the officer, whom David described as easygoing, arrested him and placed him in the back of her cruiser.

It wasn’t the first story of an adolescent done wrong that case manager and One80 program director Dana Katz had heard during her seven years with the program. She’s heard dozens of stories spanning the gamut of juvenile mistakes, from theft and vandalism to a case involving the accidental burning of a property. Katz looked on as David relayed the story of his arrest. His mother sat next to him, her leg shaking. She preferred not to speak much, but when she did, her rushed delivery and achy pitch revealed her stress at her son’s misfortune.

Everything leading up to this—the arrest, the ride to the station, and the processing—would be routine for anyone in the situation David found himself in. But it was here, in the conference room of the Ulster County Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center in Kingston, that David’s path began to fork from the typical process of criminal justice. Instead of sitting in a courtroom awaiting his fate, David’s case was referred by the Ulster County Probation Department to be resolved in this evening session of One80, a restorative justice program organized by local nonprofit Family of Woodstock. The program gives youths between the ages of 7 to 17 the opportunity to forgo a traditional court appearance in favor of owning up to the damage of their misdeeds and figuring out ways to make amends in a voluntary meeting with the affected party, a case manager, and three vetted volunteers who represent the community as a part of the Juvenile Community Accountability Board (JCAB).

Rather than doling out swift, legal retribution, restorative justice emphasizes a cooperative and transformative approach to criminalized behavior. “The focus is on repairing relationships when harm occurs and working on building and maintaining those relationships to prevent any future harm,” says Katz, who holds three different certifications in restorative justice practices and has a decade of experience working with youth in the nonprofit space. One80’s results have been extraordinary: the program boasts a 6 percent recidivism rate among the over 300 juveniles that have gone through it, a minuscule number compared to the 40 percent recidivism rate among nonviolent adult offenders nationwide. That success prompted county officials, including District Attorney David Clegg and County Executive Pat Ryan, to expand the program to include nonviolent adult offenders ages 18 to 26 as soon as this month and continuing into next year.

Once the expansion begins, Katz and company would be referred cases involving legal adults from the DA, while youth cases would still be sent over from the probation department or local school; both age groups would be eligible to have their charges dismissed once it has been assessed that they’ve repaired the damage that has been caused, usually within a few months. Besides giving a formal apology to the affected party, the final assessment looks into whether the responsible party has done what the group considered a proper job repairing the damage done. For example, in the accidental fire case, the responsible youth had to spend time volunteering with their local fire department to complete their assessment. The aim of the process isn’t just for responsible parties like David to avoid harsh, often unproductive punishments, but to really take note of the effect their actions have on others such as those at the scene or those closest to them. 

“When you get that call and you have to come home because your son’s at the police department, it’s not easy to swallow,” David’s mother told the group. After she described how the incident forced her to call out early from her long shift at work, a JCAB volunteer named Christina Ganio shifted the attention back to David.

“What would you say the hardest thing has been for you?” Ganio asked him.

“Probably seeing how hard everybody’s been reacting to it, their responses. How much it affected her and my family,” he replied. “They weren’t really angry or upset with me. They just felt disappointed.” Those simple moments of reflection are what Katz and other restorative justice advocates are looking to draw out and eventually use in the service of healing both the victim and perpetrator.

“It’s really powerful to see,” Katz says. “They come for this closing and they’re smiling. They feel good. You can see that they feel good about what they’ve done. It’s just a really beautiful thing to watch.” 

The Relational View of Repair

The popularity of restorative justice as an alternative to normal legal proceedings hit the mainstream with the launch of the Ontario-based Kitchener program in 1974, but the practice has been attending to the needs of both victims and offenders for centuries among North America’s various native and indigenous groups. As Western culture placed a greater emphasis on the individual over the collective, more punitive forms of justice gained favor. Every crime became a slight against the social fabric. Society shifted its sights on punishing wrongdoers by any means necessary, rather than addressing the underlying conditions behind a crime and creating substitutes to stays behind bars that, more often than not, leave a person worse off than they were before.

“Once we take a relational view of things, we realize we’re not trying to make excuses for people through restorative justice. We’re making the explanation matter. They’re not excuses, they’re explanations,” says Jennifer Llewellyn, a restorative justice scholar and advisor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Llewellyn also serves as an academic advisor to the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice program, which has garnered praise from both academics and law enforcement alike during its more than two-decade run; a survey of 297 Halifax Regional Police officers found that about three quarters agreed that restorative justice was a viable alternative for both youth and adult offenders.

For proponents like Llewellyn and Katz, restorative justice allows for more flexibility in the form justice can take. Katz recalls mediating a 2018 case involving four kids who had been caught spraypainting swastikas on numerous sites in Kingston, including the public library. The circle in that session saw the four kids hash out a resolution with the director and a board member of the library and a local rabbi. In response to the vandalism, the kids were tasked with educating themselves on Jewish culture on top of making posters on the negative effect graffiti has on a community. In addition to observing a Friday night Sabbath, they attended a private viewing of The Diary of Anne Frank set up by the library staff. 

“I was with them when they watched it,” Katz says. “They were just asking a lot of questions and really engaged. The experience of going to a Friday night Sabbath was really powerful for them too. One girl was like, ‘Oh my god, this is way better than church!’”

In David’s case, making amends meant donating the cash amount of the mask to St. Jude’s (a charity supported by the store) as well as apologizing to the manager. He also has to make up for the stress it’s had on those around him, like his mom, who confided to the group that she still feels overwhelmed having to juggle work and managing a household with two boys. As a mother herself, Ganio could relate.

“I think to be away from home and come home to a house that was picked up would be good,” she said. “For myself, I feel like that would be something that would give me a bit more peace when I got home.”

As the nation continues to reckon with a legacy of racial injustice in the wake of widespread protests spurred by the police killings of numerous Black citizens, proposals like restorative justice programs are being discussed in parallel with other reforms hoping to establish a more equitable justice system. Katz sees restorative justice as a buffer against zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies, which often disproportionately suspend and expel Black students at a higher rate than their white peers: Black students in Kingston schools were almost 4 times more likely to be suspended than white students, a rate comparable to the national average.

“I’ve never had a case [of a child] that didn’t want to go back to school,” Katz says. “They want to be in school and we’re kicking them out.” Katz believes that restorative justice could foster a collaborative legal system that asks—rather than assumes—what’s best for the victim and the offender, so long as it isn’t subsumed by the current system. It shouldn’t be about punishment for punishment’s sake but approaching something closer to the rehabilitation of the offender.

“That may be ensuring that we hold offenders to their responsibilities. They have to do their part of the work to ensure things go better in the future. That may be ensuring they get the help that they need or the education [or employment] that they need. That may be having them demonstrate that they’ve learned to be responsible and part of the solution,” Llewellyn says.

The One80 program itself is partially modeled on Albany’s Community Accountability Board, with the addition of a case manager who helps guide the process. When asked about any goals going forward, DA Clegg stated in a press release that his office intends to identify appropriate nonviolent criminal cases where both offender and victim are amenable to the process, with close attention given to promoting the victim’s recovery. In the meantime, the biggest challenge ahead might be convincing skeptics that in select cases, restorative justice is a worthy alternative to traditional punishments.

“Sometimes parents are really defensive and feel like this program is a joke, like a slap on the wrist,” Katz says. “Once I have time to explain it a little bit more, I think they tend to be more open.”

At times like that she focuses on the potential for growth that comes with participating in good deeds related to the original offense. That kind of growth and the enthusiasm behind it excites Llewellyn.

“I think it is a positive moment,” she says. “We need to then keep our eye on the ball that if it’s positive, it’s because it’s about transformation. We need to demand these programs make an actual difference, not just at an individual level but at a systemic level.”