Diane H. Schetky, M.D.

Juvenile justice in the United States has struggled to find effective means of dealing with delinquent children and adolescents. Studies have shown that confining them with other delinquents only reinforces their delinquent behavior and fails to provide them with good role models. Placing youths in correctional facilities stigmatizes and alienates them from their communities. Many youths released from these facilities will return to the same adverse environments and gravitate to delinquent and substance abusing peers. Many become repeat offenders and, if their crimes are serious enough, they may be waived to the adult correctional system. There they will be tried, and, if convicted, sentenced as adults. This trend only adds to the overcrowding in our nation’s overburdened prison system. Several studies found that juveniles waived to adult correctional facilities recidivate more and sooner than juveniles who committed similar offenses but were kept in the juvenile justice system.

Having worked in juvenile and adult correctional facilities as a psychiatrist and, later as a hospice volunteer, I have become somewhat disillusioned. I have witnessed the inevitable emphasis on retribution over rehabilitation, shame over understanding, and rigidity over compassion that characterizes most correctional facilities. In addition, recidivism rates run about 66 percent. In some facilities, the annual cost per bed would easily pay for one year at a private college. Ironically, education and continued contact with family are the two factors that mitigate against recidivism in this population.

I recently completed volunteer training in the Restorative Justice Program of Midcoast Maine. Like other restorative justice programs, it offers a very different approach to dealing with first time juvenile offenders. Restorative justice attempts to address some of the limitations of our current correctional systems, and to involve community and victims in resolving the fallout from a crime. The concept of restorative justice emerged in the 1970s and it is now used in many parts of the world. In New Zealand, where the Maori people first used this practice, it has become the primary tool used in the juvenile justice system and rarely are youth sent to correctional facilities.

The restorative justice system views a crime as a violation of people and an offense against human relationships. It believes that violations create obligations and that justice must involve victims, offenders, and members of the community in order to put things right; and it fosters a dialogue between them. In contrast, the criminal justice system views crime as a violation of the law and state. Under this system, justice requires the state to determine blame and impose punishment, and the central focus is on offenders getting what they deserve. Under restorative justice, the focus is on victim needs and offender responsibility for repairing the harm. Restorative justice also seeks to re-integrate and restore both victims and offenders, and help them become contributing members of society again. There are many applications of restorative justice and it takes many forms, but I shall only focus on juvenile programs.

In Maine, some courts are referring juveniles who do not pose a threat to the community to the Restorative Justice Program before adjudication. In addition, some may be referred for mentoring by trained volunteers upon their release from juvenile facilities. A separate Restorative School Discipline program offers restorative justice practices to schools as an alternative to disciplinary measures such has detention, suspension, or expulsion. Schools utilizing this approach are finding fewer disciplinary problems. As a hypothetical example of how this might work, Sean has e-mailed a bomb threat to his high school. The assistant principal requests assistance from the Restorative School Discipline program. A trained volunteer meets with Sean and his family and invites Sean to come to a circle to meet with those impacted by his actions. In as much as Sean, who has confessed to the crime, may be facing criminal charges, his lawyer is contacted and gives his consent for the meeting. The volunteer prepares Sean, his family, and invited stakeholders for what will occur. At the designated meeting place, Sean sits in a circle with people from his community. This includes a peer terrified by the bomb threat who is now afraid to go to school, the principal who had to close school for the day at considerable cost, parents who had to miss work to go home to care for children, the captain of the basketball team whose match against a rival school had to be cancelled, and the police chief who had to bring in a bomb squad at added expense to the community. In addition, Sean’s parents, who are feeling shameful and asking themselves “Where did we go wrong?” participate in the circle.

Over the course of the two-hour meeting, a volunteer facilitator asks Sean what happened, what he was thinking at the time, what he now thinks and feels about what he did, and what he thinks his obligations are to make things right. Community members weigh in on the harm done, but at the same time are respectful and supportive of him. On questioning his reasons for making the threat, he hangs his head and mumbles that he did it impulsively because he was not prepared to take his chemistry exam that day. He admits that he had not considered the consequences of his actions. As the dialogue with members of his community progresses, he makes eye contact, his posture relaxes, and he comes to appreciate the extensive ripple effect of his bomb threat. By the end of the process, he is apologetic and has worked out a plan of restitution with help from his community. His parents, who had feared being alienated from the community because of Sean’s actions, are surprised by the support they received. The court waives criminal charges in lieu of Sean being followed by a Restorative Justice volunteer for six months and carrying out his community service.

While restorative justice is not the answer for all juvenile offenders, it holds great promise for those who have taken a wrong turn but can be successfully re-integrated into their community. The Code of Ethics of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry urges us to promote the well being of the children and adolescents in our care and to reduce the deleterious effects of others upon them. It also stresses the need to promote dignity and self-respect in those served. Restorative justice shares these values and is a useful practice with which all child and adolescent psychiatrists should become familiar.