By Dylan Weinand
Restorative justice (RJ) brings a new dynamic to the criminal justice process. Denison is currently in the process of bringing the initiative back to campus. Instead of handing out punishments to offenders, RJ asks questions. Why did you want to harm this person? Why did you steal from the store? How do you think you hurt the person when using a racial slur?
This process is directed by a facilitator, who is trained to help both the offender and “harmed party’’ (which can be a group or individual) express their feelings during and after the incident. The hope is that this dialogue enables the offender to understand the impact his behavior had on the person or group affected.
These dialogues are called circles, and both the offender and harmed party can invite any supporters to be there during the discussion.
Clearly, this process is in stark contrast to the United States judicial system. Rather than simply imprisoning those who commit crimes, RJ looks to aid in a healing process. Twisha Asher ‘17, a part of the RJ team, noted that getting the offender to take part in a RJ circle is typically much more challenging than getting the harmed party to participate. The dialogue is often emotional, and participants are expected to be vulnerable. “The offender should be willing to own up to something that is not OK,” she said.
Greg Phlegar, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct and Values, is currently spearheading an attempt to bring RJ back to Denison’s campus after a year of idleness. Phlegar was not available for comment.
Jordan Berger ‘15, a women’s studies major, studied abroad in Rwanda in the fall of 2014. There, she studied the Rwandan genocide and its impact on communities in the region.
Prior to going to Rwanda, she learned about RJ, but it wasn’t until she experienced RJ that she fully understood its impact. She spoke to people who committed mass murders, and was moved by their communities welcoming them back after prison sentences.
In Rwanda’s RJ program, those who had murdered could come to a communal gathering and confess who they killed. There, community members listened as the offenders explained why they had massacred people, and apologized to the families affected. Often, the families would accept the offenders apology and give them food. “That everything can be forgiven is amazing. Some people don’t like that,” Berger explained.
Phlegar and his team are currently recruiting Denison students to be a part of the RJ team. Berger noted that it takes “a great listener” to be a good facilitator for RJ. Becoming a part of the RJ program is certainly a large time commitment, but assisting in the healing process between students or student groups make it worthwhile.
Colleges across the country are implementing restorative justice systems, in hopes of creating more unified campus communities. If you would like to be a part of Denison’s new RJ program, contact Greg Phlegar, Twisha Asher, Jordan Berger, or Michaela Grenier.