A Breakthrough Idea After a Break-In: Can restorative justice help communities "make it right"?

Jelissa Parham

On a sunny day in the Bay, I walk up to my apartment door and think about how I’m looking forward to spending some time outside attempting to rescue the plants in my garden that I just can’t seem to remember to water. As I open my front door, I notice that it looks like someone has taken my apartment and shaken it upside down. Drawers and cabinets are open and clothing items are thrown all over the floor. I’m shocked. I can’t move. I can’t breathe.

It takes my brain a moment to realize that there has been a break-in.

The police arrive to take a statement and collect any fingerprints that may have been left behind. The officer asks me, “If they catch the person who robbed your apartment, would you like to press charges?” What is the right course of action to take, I wondered? I felt violated and angry in that moment. If they did catch the person who did this, would their interaction with the criminal justice system make me feel better or safer? As the days and weeks passed, every time I opened my front door my heart would pound, and I would quickly look around for anyone or any signs of a break-in. Would the possibility of putting the person who violated my space in jail equal justice for me? Would I feel vindicated? What did I need to make it right and feel safe again?

Restorative justice aims to repair harm and ensure accountability in a safe space for the survivor. 

My first experience with restorative justice was working in a middle school. Students would be referred to an “RJ Circle” after an incident that caused some form of harm — from stabbing another student with a pencil to stealing a phone. Once referred, the victim and the harm-doer would have to sit together with the restorative justice counselor and anyone who felt that they were harmed during the incident — a teacher, the school nurse, or other students could participate. By the end of the process, the aim was always for the victim to feel heard and determine what they needed from the harm-doer to feel OK after the incident and ultimately repair the hurt or damage that was done.

Blue Shield of California Foundation is currently supporting restorative justice as an approach that is focused on the needs of survivors of domestic violence while simultaneously reducing incarceration, recidivism, and racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal-legal system. It aims to repair harm and ensure accountability in a safe space for the survivor. Also, the process allows harm-doers to come face to face with their partner, family members, and community and acknowledge that their actions were harmful.

Hand holding

Restorative justice is not yet established in the field of domestic violence, but Foundation grantees are thoughtfully and carefully exploring the use of restorative justice in this space to assess its effectiveness.

To this day, I wonder if I could sit across from the person who broke into my house and tell them what I need to “make it right.” There have been cases of restorative justice used as an alternative to the criminal justice system in property crime before, but would that work for me? Could I calmly express how their actions make me feel unsafe in my neighborhood and anxious every time I open my apartment door at the end of the day? I want to tell them that this goes beyond just my experience, but that their actions have further implications for everyone who lives in my apartment complex, the whole neighborhood, and the city in general. Would understanding on their part and an apologetic attitude be enough for me to move on? Would it repair harm?

I still don’t know.

Learn more about restorative justice in this Q & A with Foundation Senior Program Officer Lucia Corral Peña and Executive Director and Founder of Creative Interventions Mimi Kim.  

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