Punishment Without Accountability Isn’t Justice

Our communities are abuzz with debates over crime and punishment, from mandatory minimum sentencing proposed by legislators to racist taunts at basketball games. Rightfully so, these debates raise questions: How do we create safer, more peaceable communities, and how do we hold people accountable when harm happens?

We have grown accustomed to relying on systems that punish those who hurt us. Punishment does not require accountability, but places the person who caused harm in a passive role in which they aren’t required, or given the opportunity, to take accountability at all.

With punishment as the only tool in our “justice” toolbelt, when it doesn’t work, we dig in harder. We lock people away longer. Still, this tool has not delivered desired outcomes. We ultimately want the person responsible to feel remorse, make amends, repay their debt, and never hurt anyone again. Sometimes, punitive methods motivate these changes. More often, they create worse, more broken citizens. It is no surprise that higher incarceration rates and longer sentences have repeatedly proven ineffective in reducing crime or recidivism, or making communities safer.

U.S. school systems mirror the U.S. justice system. When a student causes harm, we suspend them from school and anticipate improved behavior when they return. However, many students are suspended repeatedly, then expelled, and the “school-to-prison pipeline” is tapped.

Thankfully we have another tool in our justice toolbelt, one proven more cost-efficient, impactful, and effective through evidence-based practices: Restorative Justice.

Restorative Justice is a philosophy that prioritizes the relational impact of wrongdoing. It asserts that when someone commits a crime or causes harm, a relationship is damaged, and the person responsible has an obligation to repair the harm to those affected. Restorative Conferencing brings people together in a safe, professionally-facilitated space, to hold the responsible party accountable. In this process, the person responsible must own up to what they did and listen to victims share how the offense impacted them. Participants then create an agreement by consensus that defines how the responsible person will repair the harm. The agreement is designed to meet the unique needs of the people most directly affected, build empathy, and reduce the risk of future offenses.

Restorative Justice is not new. It is how many Indigenous and religious communities addressed harm long before formal systems were put in place, tasked with punishing people. Punitive systems and Restorative Justice are not mutually exclusive; Restorative Justice may be utilized as a stand-alone alternative or as a supplementary process. North Dakota has had a robust Restorative Justice program for 25 years, now operated by Consensus Council. In 2022, our program served 887 people through partnerships with ND Juvenile Court and numerous school districts. In 2021, Restorative Justice was added to ND Century Code as an alternative sanction for adults convicted of a crime, and we are broadening our capacity for adult cases.

Our communities are in dire need of accountability and restoring relationship, and North Dakota is poised to embrace and expand a restorative approach. Restorative Justice, and school-based restorative practices, are an effective approach that center victims’ needs, cultivate empathy, and seek to strengthen relationships through the hard work of accountability and repair. Restorative Justice allows the people with the greatest stake in the outcome of the justice process — the victims, the offenders, and their communities — to remain in relationship, and to live in justice.

Elizabeth Hilt is the restorative justice program director and Ann Crews Melton is the executive director for the Consensus Council. Joel Friesz is the executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice.

Published in the Bismarck Tribune on February 22, 2023. Published in the Fargo Forum on February 27, 2023.

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