Holding juvenile offenders accountable for crimes they have committed isn’t just about locking them up and throwing away the key. The process should also include rehabilitation efforts that one national expert said Tuesday should focus on “restoring the harm” done to both the victim and the offender.
“A young offender many times doesn’t realize the harm that has been caused by his crime and the effect that it has had not only on his families, but the families of people they didn’t even know had been impacted,” N. Saleem Hylton, a nationally recognized restorative justice expert out of Washington, D.C., told local attorneys, juvenile justice and social workers, and victim advocates at workshops held on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Hylton said the concept of restorative justice allows all parties involved in a crime to work out a “balanced” punishment that considers the seriousness of the offense but also the background of the perpetrator. If a juvenile offender has hurt someone, it could be that offender is also struggling with internal issues that need to be addressed and sometimes, he said, “a very simple gesture, like an apology, can open the door for dialogue between families.”
“We have seen that happen over and over,” Hylton said.
But creating an effective restorative justice system takes work, he acknowledged. Several participants in Tuesday’s workshop, particularly the social workers and staff at St. Croix’s Youth Rehabilitation Center, said they were concerned that implementing such a system could put youngsters at risk.
“When dealing with juveniles, you have to be careful with what you’re exposing them to and, if they are not willing, they can become angry,” one participant from St. Croix said. “And in a small environment like this, it can also lead to retaliation.”
The answer, he said, is getting everyone on board. Hylton and his wife, Ivy, have been involved in restorative justice efforts across the mainland and he said that, within parole or prison systems, the key is training. It also helps that states such as Pennsylvania have passed pro-restorative justice laws that establish everything from drop-in centers to targeted rehabilitation programs in an effort to commit to the process, he said.
“You can’t just start implementing practices,” Hylton said in response to the concerns. “You don’t just expose a person’s wounds; you work the process.”
“And you might find that one victim isn’t a perfect candidate, but you might also find another way to address it. Maybe they never meet or talk, but the key right now is getting groups of people, like yourselves, to grab at the idea and at least try to implement some of it in the work that you do,” he said.
Asked how the concept could be applied differently to offenders committing serious crimes, such as rape and murder, Hylton said that restorative justice also involves bringing entire communities – from the police department to Department of Justice attorneys – into the process, and making sure the needs of both sides are addressed before anyone goes to jail.
“There are some states that work with an entire restorative justice philosophy that’s been designed for serious crimes,” Hylton said. “It starts with looking at the crime, the root cause of the crime and figuring out what kind of justice can be applied that will hold that individual accountable but also
restoring the harm that has been done to both the victim and the offender.”
He said, “It focuses on consensual outcomes that are inclusive of the the entire community and puts emphasis on the idea that everyone has value. But it is a serious shift, a challenging shift and getting it done includes providing as much training and coaching as possible for everyone involved.”