People in our neighborhood of North Lawndale are fully aware of the current justice system that has managed to incarcerate, at one time or another, 65 percent of the population in our area!
Michele Alexander, in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” highlights how the War on Drugs begun under President Ronald Reagan and continued under the Bush administration and beyond ended up overtly targeting poor communities of color. The result was the incarceration of a highly disproportionate number of black males than white males.
Keep in mind that drug use and drug selling has been just as prevalent in white communities as in the black community. The limited resources, in terms of legal representation and (economic) family support, find most black men ending up spending some time in prison. They are stuck with a record that often prevents them from acquiring good jobs and livable, affordable housing.
Whereas, their white counterparts have far more resources to get their cases dismissed without a record, leaving them able to continue to pursue life freely. Our black brothers and sisters, on the other hand, continue to be shackled by a criminal record that, in an estimated 80 percent of the cases, would likely have been dismissed had they been given the proper legal support at the time of arrest.
Thankfully, due to new rules in Chicago, every person who is arrested and brought to the police station has the right to call 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year for free legal representation at 1-800-LAW-REP4 (1-800-529-7374).
Coupled with the over-racialization of arrests in poor communities is the sad fact that jails and prisons, in general, are solely geared toward punishment, oftentimes dehumanizing treatment, and rarely if ever about rehabilitation. Upon release from jail or prison, returning citizens often find themselves at a loss for resources to get back on their feet and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Our current system of punishment operates by what is called retributive justice. It is the ’eye for an eye’ biblical justice that pervades, not only our justice system but also impacts our schools in the black and brown communities. In many ways it permeates our homes where punishment is often verbally and physically administered, diminishing our youth in body, mind, and spirit rather than teaching them by applying a form of discipline that respects their dignity and builds accountability in non-abusive ways that actually strengthen the whole family.
There’s a new form of justice emerging and taking root in Chicago: Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is a positive approach to building community and resolving conflict, creating a safe space for open communication, understanding, relationship building, healing for victims and for those who harm them, providing a way for everyone impacted by conflict to be a part of the solution that meets their needs, increasing community/family safety and well-being. Rather than involve an often impersonal court and abusive prison system, restorative justice engages the community in a way such that both the person who causes the harm and the victim can be supported in their healing and restoration by the community manifested in social services, mentoring and coaching provided in all of the assessed areas of need for both individuals. At its best, restorative practices also support and shore up the families and/or immediate support system for the individuals involved in the conflict.
The overall goal of the Restorative Justice movement in Chicago is to engage communities at every level in restorative practices. In our schools, this would mean rejecting the excessive zero tolerance and suspension practices still too much the norm in both public and charter schools.
It would mean engaging the administration, teachers, students and anyone who day-to-day interacts with the students from security personnel to cafeteria workers to volunteers in learning, practicing and integrating restorative justice practices in the school. Such practices would include establishing a Peace Room where students in conflict could go or be sent to resolve their conflict with a trained Circle Keeper. Students could be trained to monitor potential conflicts and be trained on how to intervene as a conflict begins to escalate.
Peace Circles can be used as a method for teachers to do a check-in each morning with their class so that everyone has a sense of how everyone is feeling entering into the class. The Talking Circle format for Restorative Justice is also a good way to engage students in conversations meaningful to their lives, giving everyone the freedom to speak, inviting everyone to listen without judgment and to do so with a commitment to confidentiality within the Circle.
Sadly, Restorative Justice has been established as the norm in the Chicago Public Schools Student Code of Conduct for over six years, but very few schools have fully embraced it! We have a long way to go to eliminate the current practice in most schools of disposing of the problem children and youth through expulsion and suspension, setting them up for a pathway to future troubles and potential incarceration. Restorative Justice practices can put a plug in the current school-to-prison pipeline.
Similar Restorative Justice practices can be used at home as parents receive support through classes which help them enhance their discipline (vs. punishment) skills and build in structures like a Circle for regular family check-ins and healthy discussion.
Restorative Justice at its heart respects the dignity of every human person. In a community where there have been layers and layers of trauma inflicted upon families and individuals by a number of internal and external forces, many related to racism, it is imperative that we move away from continuing to traumatize our community through abusive practices in our homes, in our schools, on our streets (by some police) and in our criminal justice system. Instead, we need to work together to build a community where Restorative Justice becomes the norm for how we treat one another – with the dignity and respect due every child of God.
Author’s Note: A good resource for learning more about Restorative Justice Practices in Chicago Public Schools and the challenges and opportunities it presents, read: “From Policy to Standard Practice Restorative Justice in Chicago Public Schools” prepared by The High HOPES Campaign (Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions). St. Agatha, through our work with High HOPES and the Community Renewal Society, was a part of this effort. You can access the document at http://www.dignityinschools.org/sites/default/files/FromPolicyToStandardPractice.pdf
Opinion by Fr. Larry Dowling, Pastor, St. Agatha Catholic Church
Edited by Cathy Milne
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Samuel A. Love’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License