Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration

Consultation on Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration

November 18, 2013

Fordham University at Lincoln Center

Participant Response Summary Report

 Executive Summary

The Consultation on Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration, held at Fordham University on November 18, 2013, was overwhelmingly successful.  The event was attended by individuals with a variety of backgrounds, including state and government, public safety, religious communities, faith-based organizations, universities, and community assistance programs.  Regardless of area of expertise, all attendees expressed concern for the future direction of the U.S. judicial system and the possibilities of introducing restorative justice principles in various settings. 

Having direct experience in restorative justice, a panel of national and international individuals kicked off the morning.   Attendees were then divided into groups.  These groups held two consecutive discussions, each lasting about 2 hours long.  Finally, the day concluded with a group discussion on various restorative justice topics, attended by personal interest.  Below is a brief summary of topics discussed in groups throughout the day. 

Faith and Religion – Congregations and faith-based organizations are regarded resourceful change agents that hold a great deal of economic and political influence.  However, it is important for congregations to examine their historical role in the justice system, as well beliefs and perceptions regarding post-incarcerated individuals.  Religious communities would be most effective working in the community, and reaching outside of their developed network to join with other resources.  Greater family support and a focus from self-interest to community-interest would strengthen religious communities as a source of change. 

Community – Use of a community asset-based, capacity building model is an effective avenue to bring about a values shift and systems change to support justice reform.  A bottom up, grassroots community effort would most successfully support reform and policy change.  Growing community networks that partner together for change is also a solid success strategy.  Community is a growth opportunity, but is also a challenge for to find common ground.   Opportunities for employment, equality, family support, and a communal shared vision are needed yet missing components of many communities.

Justice System Components – Specific components of the judicial system are important to reform, including plea bargaining, legal procedures, economic profitability, and policy.  A cost saving model for the government that will also work in the community needs to be implemented.  The missing story in the U.S. justice system is the victim’s experience, needs, costs, and trauma from being involved in a crime.  Prevention and post-incarceration education, support, and programs are urgently needed in communities.  Information and research findings are not being transported to local and state government entities, and research is needed to guide the transfer of care to the community.  

Changing the SystemStrategies for change include a top down approach to judicial system reform, focusing on legislation change.  Other strategies include incorporating an educational strategy to create public awareness, and bringing victims and offenders together while addressing accountability.  Barriers to change include addressing and reforming structural violence, and the lack of problem solving approach applied in the judicial process, and time.  Long-term restorative justice goals require solid resources, patience, and commitment.

Youth – The judicial system must take into consideration the mental and physical development of youth, and evaluate youth accountability in light of developmental struggles.   Antiquated laws in NY, such as the age of youth prosecution as an adult, need immediate reform.  Youth need to be included in the process of change, and Americans needs to reawaken commitment to and caring for youth in general. 

Poverty and Racism – The current U.S. judicial system is largely a result of ongoing racism and poverty, yet these themes are missing from the mass incarceration conversation.  Racism and other structural barriers must be acknowledged and unpacked before change can occur.  Patriarchal standards are also in need of restructuring.  Understanding and meeting the needs of minority voices and economically challenged communities is vital for effective reform.

Economics – The U.S. penal system is both a huge cost to taxpayers as well as a profitable industry to certain stakeholders.  Exploring power dynamics, holding institutions as well as citizens accountable, and partnering with local and state businesses would be effective ways to combat current barriers to prison reform.

Mental Health – The mental health needs of ex-offenders, victims, and the community are poorly identified, with few effective services offered for care.  Trauma, substance abuse and effects of incarceration were concerns that must be addressed post-incarceration.  Substance abuse prevention was also a concern, as most services that are offered are treatment focused during and after incarceration.

Storytelling – Storytelling is as an effective tool to understand and identify the needs of those involved in restorative justice work.  Storytelling can aid victims, offenders, and communities heal, meet each other’s needs, and assist in examining perceptions and events happening in the environment.   Storytelling can assist with transferring motivation from self-interest to other-interest, as individual stories are woven together to create a single community story. 

Restorative Justice – Although much of the consultation addressed various restorative justice issues, three specific areas were explored at the conclusion of the day.  Participants were asked to comment on (1) what was the most surprising thing they heard discussed during the day (2) what changes do they hope for in New York for the future, and (3) because of what they now know about restorative justice, what action(s) are they willing to commit to now.   Various participant answers are recorded at the end of the report.

Faith & Religion

Many groups agreed that congregations, faith-based organizations, religion and faith were strong tools and resources to utilize when challenging current criminal justice policy and practice.    Congregations and faith-based organizations were viewed as trusted and fair resources for change, as they are concerned with leaving the world a better place.  Groups reported that faith communities are able and willing to do what government is unable or unwilling to do. There was some concern that congregations and faith-based organizations could potentially be harmful, as criminal justice law has often grown out of harmful and erroneous theology.   Historically the U.S. legal and penal systems were built on Christian ideas of sin, punishment and penance, as well as patriarchal values.

Suggestions were offered as to how congregations and faith-based communities could provide direct support and action in changing the penal system.  Many groups felt that the religious community needs to respond with a more concrete plan of action.  Churches historically played a key role in developing the legal system, but most religious leaders and members no longer fight for or have a role in the judicial system or political matters.  The religious communities that seem to be the most active, if they have the resources, are communities that have been devastated by incarceration.   In addition, many groups agreed that religious leaders and members need to be more accepting, welcoming, and interested in members of their community that have been incarcerated.  Many groups felt that using the religious lens to change policy and assist post-incarcerated individuals is best grounded in community and advocacy, with change occurring from the bottom up.

In many groups, religious communities were viewed as having access to valuable resources including voters and funding.  Church members hold a great deal of economic and political influence that can mobilize change.  As legislators want to get reelected, religious communities can have a forceful impact on raising political awareness as well as negotiating for political change. Faith communities vary in mobilization, resources, power, and beliefs.  Some fundamentalists have been very punitive.  Other communities that hold little resources and funding will not be heard.  These issues need to be addressed.  Groups discussed the possibility of religious leaders using pulpits to dissect these issues, as well as to educate and mobilize congregations.  To make a significant difference, religious communities will benefit from getting out of the building and into the community.   Congregation members can be a solid source of funding; yet, a change in public narrative and perception needs to occur before members will support causes financially.   Reaching outside of congregation networks was suggested in several groups to solidify community values and shared interests.  Congregations and other networks would also benefit by assisting members to expand their perceptions, and address power dynamics that stigmatize post-incarcerated individuals.

Other challenges religious communities may face are congregation values and tribalism.  Many groups voiced a desire for congregations to expand their doors to the community to meet individuals who have struggled and see them as worthy.   A call for greater family support within congregations and the wider community was also discussed.  A need for a values shift in religious communities was noted, adopting the belief that all youth are all our children.  Many felt it is in the best interest of the community to have all children nurtured and included.  A “not in my backyard”, “your problem is not my problem” belief system may exist in congregations.  In addition, many religious communities need to break out of the “tribalism” mentality to partner with other faith denominations to create lasting change. 

Lastly, groups called for a move from self-interest to community-interest in faith communities.  Congregations are called to serve each other and the community in a capacity building way, but that has been translated to an individual problem in a deficit way.  Religious communities are charged with the act of restoring civil society.  Congregations and members must take accountability to make a change together, and a commitment to seeking God and not self.


Many groups agreed that a community values shift has to occur to gain support for justice system reform from punitive to restorative.   The people in the community should have a plan and avenue to voice reform necessities.  Use of an asset-based, capacity building model is an effective strategy to bring about a values shift as well as a systems change.  In addition, community education on justice issues is necessary to inspire a public perception change.  Groups agreed that a bottom up, grassroots community effort would be most successful to challenge policy.   Groups also established that individuals and communities have suffered isolation and alienation as a result of modern technology. 

Strategies for developing community networks were regarded as being essential for bringing about change in the judicial system.  Expanded network relationships need to be created and then encouraged to partner together for change.  Relationships also come with defined perceptions, values and power struggles, which can be a challenge for people to find common ground.   Many groups called to mind that community is discomfort, not a romantic, safe place.  Community is not staying in your own network or in your own comfort zone.  Community is merging with different networks to provide growth opportunities.  Being uncomfortable is necessary for growth that confronts the “out of site out of mind, you don’t count to me” stance.

Most groups discussed the need for community to be strengthened, with families needing more support to grow stronger.   New employment opportunities are essential, as an increase in employment helps families and community blossom.  Government should be supporting family and community growth, not engaging in surveillance.  For community to be strengthened and to demand change, many groups discussed the need for a communal shared vision, common values, and equal power.   Attendees posed important power differential questions such as “who is included in the community”, “what is being restored in community”, and “who benefits from this restoration and who does not”. 

Justice System Components

Groups presented possible barriers preventing change within the U.S. judicial system.  Plea bargaining and legal procedure appears to be a sizeable problem.  Values and theories the judicial system is based on needs to be examined and challenged.   This includes a reversal of the “tough on crime works” attitude and a motivational shift from “how do we lock bad people away” to “how do we bring good people home.”   Some groups felt the court reflects the views and values of the community at large.  Lastly, the U.S. penal system, characterized by economic profit, needs to be confronted and curtailed.  Individuals employed by prisons are not going to easily support a reduction in recidivism, and some communities survive on a thriving local prison.  Recently, due to overwhelming government costs, penal policy is moving toward the least restrictive environment concept utilizing more community supervision and care.  What is needed, however, is a cost saving model for the government that will work in the community. 

Many groups agreed victims have an essential role in the U.S. judicial system, yet that role is not honored.  The missing story in the justice system is the victim’s experience, needs, costs, and trauma from being involved in a crime.  Victims are an important piece of the recidivism puzzle.  The victim is often left out of the justice process, as the prosecutor has become the voice of victims. Unfortunately, most cases do not go to trial and a plea bargain is struck.  It is then problematic for victims, offenders, and the community to heal and be productive.   Groups also widely agreed that more prevention and post-incarceration education, support, and programs are urgently needed. 

Some groups felt major, long-term reform of the justice system will primarily be initiated through challenging and changing legislation.  Reform often depends on perspective; legislation might only be passed when public consciousness becomes engaged through a crisis.  Other barriers were discussed to changing legislation, including the power of towns and villages to make their own local rules, further complicating the system.  In addition, policy is often based on party politics and alliances.  Few politicians and representatives will take the risk to step into the radical role.   Policy is also frequently based on self-interest, and “experts” need to have a balanced view of their own motivations.

Lastly, state and government workers discussed department research needs that were not being met sufficiently.   These participants voiced opinions that the use of evidence-based practices in the justice system seemed unproductive as models targeted the existent issue, not the larger picture.  Information and research findings are not being transported to local and state government entities.  New York State is trying to involve local communities as government workers are being pressed to extend the conversation to the front end.   Research is needed to guide and inform this process.   Several participants commented on the long standing disconnect between law and social science.  Laws are based on history, what the law has always been, and not contemporary social science data. 

Changing the System

Groups discussed strategies and barriers to generate a sustainable U.S. judicial system change.  Some strategies discussed included a top down approach to judicial system change. There are many lawmakers that will not buy into a change until they know their constituents will back them.  The key to change is in understanding how the current powers think, do business, and negotiate.  Both parties must be understood and heard; the party that holds power and the party that experiences injustice.   Many groups supported the idea that a system change needs to incorporate an educational strategy to create public awareness.  Americans in general appear to have little information and understanding of what is going on in the U.S. today.  The need to bring victims and offenders together while addressing accountability was also a broadly supported strategy for change.  A conceptual shift of the judicial system is necessary from “which law has been broken and the appropriate punishment” to “what damage has been done, what needs have been created, and how do we approach and meet the needs of all parties involved.”

A main barrier to system change includes addressing and reforming structural violence, which is a vital current U. S. human rights problem.  A second barrier is the existing “us against them” adversarial judicial process, instead of a problem solving approach.  Small movements of protest like Occupy Wall Street or End Stop and Frisk have tried to contest the system, but these groups have been shamed instead of immerging as heroic.  The judicial system is not designed for the problem solving approach, which is also foreign to American culture.  As a result, punishment is publically supported, as is a punitive rehabilitation process.  Time is also considered a barrier to system change.  System change and restorative justice implementation are long-range goals requiring solid resources, time, and commitment.  This is not a quick or easy fix.


Groups agreed that the judicial system must take into consideration the mental and physical development of youth, and evaluate youth accountability in light of developmental struggles.   Groups also agreed antiquated laws in NY are still applied today and impact youth negatively.  Increasing the age to prosecute youth in adult criminal court needs immediate reform, as well as school open container laws.  Youth need to be educated about the law and how to avoid trouble situations.  The more empowered youth are in the process of change, the more successful the transformation.  Youth judicial focus should be moved from criminal court to family court, and include diversion programs for youth in need. Foster care has decreased caseloads by treating the family instead of removing the individual.  This framework can be applied successfully to juvenile courts and treatment as well. 

Groups also discussed the necessity for U.S. culture to value youth, and a willingness to give youth a chance.  Society cannot protect all children from having adverse life experiences, but we need to provide support for those who do.  American culture needs to reawaken commitment to and caring for youth in general.  The “neighbor” in neighborhood has disappeared. 

Race, poverty

Groups voiced concern that state of the U.S. judicial system is largely a result of ongoing racism and poverty.  At the root of the challenge to change is the fact that the prison is the new plantation.  One of the stipulations to slavery abolishment was “except imprisonment”.  Privatization has made slavery legal once again. Racism must be unpacked before any movement or modification can be expected.  Many groups established that Americans must acknowledge the structural barriers in need of change including economic systems, political contexts, and public perception, for reform to be successful.

In addition to racism, patriarchal standards are also in need of restructuring.  Manhood needs to be redefined so that men have the freedom and opportunity to embrace and practice both female and male characteristics.  Safety for youth in urban schools also needs reform.  The abundance of security officers and the racial disparity of those who are sanctioned reflect the disparities in the larger judicial system.  Diversion programs, shown to be effective, also suggest disparities.   Many individuals assigned to diversion programs by courts are members of the middle class and dominant culture.  Groups also discussed the importance of understanding and meeting the needs of minority voices and economically challenged communities.  Who is being heard and who is not strongly influences U.S. legislation. 


Many groups acknowledge the dual economic role of mass incarceration, as it is a huge cost to taxpayers yet the penal system is a profitable industry to certain stakeholders.  Although groups supported a prison industrial complex system reform, it was also acknowledged that reform would be inhibited by the fact that the system generates a high profit.   Holding institutions as well as citizens accountable to power dynamics is necessary to combat this reality.  Exploring where the power currently lies in civil and political arenas is necessary for change.  Many groups agreed that change would be more achievable if the pocketbooks of those in power become involved.  Partnering with local and statewide businesses and other economic groups, as well as providing workforce initiatives for formerly incarcerated individuals, would also advance prison reform. 

Mental Health

Few groups discussed the mental health needs of those currently and previously incarcerated.   Reducing stigma placed on persons suffering from mental health and substance abuse struggles is important to address in the process of changing the judicial system.  The mental health and substance abuse needs of community members are not being met.  Prisons have become replacements for mental institutions with little quality treatment options.  Addiction, it was noted, often stems from traumatic childhood experiences.  Trauma, mental health, and effects of incarceration must be addressed post-incarceration.  Groups also stressed the immediate need for an increase in prevention focus and program availability for mental health, trauma, and substance abuse.


Most groups viewed storytelling as an effective and practical way to voice the experience of post-incarcerated individuals.  Storytelling was discussed in groups as an aid to help victims and offenders heal.  People cannot develop and be comfortable with who they are if their personal stories are not heard.  Storytelling was supported as a valuable tool to confront harmful perceptions and examine violence, oppression, and incarceration prominent in modern American culture.  Storytelling should be supported with statistics and research for further credibility.   Storytelling can create a values shift within American culture, but this change will take time.  Policy reform is not enough, and needs to be synchronized with a transformation of public values.  The current cultural ideal of self-interest has to shift to shared interest, from individual responsibility to social responsibility.

Groups also agreed that storytelling must be inclusive of diverse experiences so people can hear each other and construct a common vision.  Before introducing restorative justice practices, self-interests, benefits, and costs of different communities has to be understood and analyzed.  It is detrimental to appreciate different community needs, perceptions, motives, and willingness to take action.  Storytelling can illuminate these distinctive community values.

Examples of narratives to include are:

  • Stories of people who have been privileged and recognize it.
  • Stories of people who have been privileged and don’t recognize it.
  • Stories of people who have been oppressed and experience injustice.
  • Stories of victims, offenders, and community members.

Diverse individual stories can be woven together to form a community story to construct shared narrative and interests.

Restorative Justice

Participants were asked to record personal responses to the restorative justice consultation day in three areas, summarized below.

In all that I heard and discussed today, the most surprising to me is:

  • The more severe the crime, the better restorative justice works.
  • How constricted judges feel about their ability to change the system.
  • The U.S. leads the world in incarceration.
  • The amount of restorative justice work going on around the world.
  • Several groups in NY are taking interest and action in restorative justice.
  • The quality of restorative justice efforts in NY.
  • Prison reform and racism need to be reformed simultaneously.
  • The opposite of love is apathy.
  • The amount of agreement in the room despite the amount of diversity.
  • How much work we have to do.
  • How the justice system targets youth within the public school system, and how unsafe schools are for youth.
  • The positive healing change restorative justice has on victims.
  • Lack of prevention programs for incarceration and substance abuse.
  • Lack of early intervention programs in a young person’s life who has been incarcerated.
  • The reluctance to address and digest racism, and how racial justice is largely missing from the incarceration conversation.
  •  Hearing the stories of those speakers who were formally incarcerated.
  •  The faith community acknowledging its potential impediments to judicial reform.
  • The frequency of post-incarceration individuals achieving success and becoming leaders in their community.
  • How isolated, rigid, and dense NYS legislation has become.
  • Karl Marx is a “no read” in the NY penal system.

As a result of this consultation, I now especially hope for the following change in New York:

  •  Introduce restorative justice practices across NY State.
  • Raise the age limit for youth convicted as adults and provide more youth prevention and diversion programs.
  • The DA will see restorative justice as a benefit and initiate action to change policy.
  • Change the way we care for the needs of the homeless.
  • Move the U.S. justice system toward restorative justice.
  • An increase and focus on restorative justice practices for youth and young adults.
  • Reform of drug laws and juvenile laws.
  • Urban congregations will have a deep and meaningful conversation with suburban congregations about power and privilege.
  • Reform of NY schools.
  • Greater political will for change in NY.
  • Raise the consciousness of people regarding issues of racism.
  • Decriminalize as much as possible, and offer diversion programs impartially.
  • People in all disciplines converse openly and commit to change systemically, communally, and individually.
  • Address stigma of incarcerated and formally incarcerated individuals.
  • More opportunities and organizations run by formally incarcerated individuals.
  • More support for existing programs run by formally incarcerated individuals.
  • Develop and practice more compassionate treatment for individuals.
  • Group Conference Circles initiated in all Family Courts.
  • Remove mandatory sentencing so judges can do their jobs.

Because of what I now know about Restorative Justice, I now commit to this action:

  • Provide access to newly created Regional Youth Justice Teams as a forum to share best practices in restorative justice.
  • Continue the restorative justice conversation and education in my role as a professor.
  • Invite my church to serve incarcerated individuals and promote restorative justice.
  • Form a coalition to bring restorative justice to the community and justice system.
  • Educate and encourage ministers and legislators toward implementing restorative justice practices.
  • Raise the restorative justice issue locally in faith and legislative arenas.
  • Develop community workshops and host training conferences on restorative justice.
  • Create a safe space in which we can redefine manhood.
  • Stay in touch with my group members to continue the restorative justice conversation.
  • Learn more about the Coming Home program.
  • Advocate and promote legislation that supports funding for prevention and re-entry programs.
  • Continue to fund restorative justice efforts in my community, and promote prevention and reentry within community programs.
  • Promote and advocate for change in the NY education system.

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