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Community Conferencing Center provides alternative paths to justice

Joe Surkeiwicz BigNow that the charges have been dropped against the police officers in the Freddie Gray case, how can you not conclude that the justice system utterly failed?

Which, naturally, raises another question: Is there a better way?

Actually, there is: restorative justice, also called conflict resolution, conflict management and community justice.

And one of the world’s leading experts on how communities can resolve their own conflicts without going through the court system is right here in Baltimore.

“We need to look more honestly at our criminal legal system and be more honest about its delivering the kinds of outcomes we want,” said Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center.

“Freddie Gray was riding his bike and turned up dead,” continued Abramson, a part-time Johns Hopkins University psychology professor who founded the CCC in 1998. “No one thus far has taken responsibility for that. And our systems do not encourage people to take responsibility. Our adversarial legal system is set up so that everyone fights to win their case, not to be accountable for what has happened.”

But can restorative justice, which provides paths for people to collectively resolve conflicts, work in complicated, highly charged cases like Gray’s?

“There are different ways to deliver justice other than going to court. In many instances they work better and cost less money,” Abramson said. “The CCC has been around since 1998 diverting misdemeanor and felony cases into the community conference process instead of the courts—car thefts, assaults and other major crimes.”

Lower recidivism rate

Over 3,000 cases have successfully been resolved by the CCC, with a recidivism rate that is 60 percent lower compared to the courts.

“The CCC was probably the first restorative justice program in the country working in disinvested American communities,” she added. “Restorative justice is different than our retributive —court—process that says someone has to win and someone has to lose.”

Rather than cast the problem in terms of wins and losses, restorative justice asks the questions: Who was affected? How can the harm best be repaired and prevented from happening again?

“It’s the whole community of people affected by the incident deciding how to fix it — victims, offenders, and their supporters,” Abramson said. “It requires a very simple shift to caring about relationships that were harmed, as opposed to being focused on a law that was broken. Over 18,000 people in Baltimore have successfully resolved their own crimes and conflicts using community conferencing.”

Abramson is no radical calling for the end of the court system.

“I’m not saying that all disputes and crimes can be addressed by community conferencing,” she said. “We need the court system. But in some cases, the court system is not delivering good outcomes. Re-offending rates are very high. Victims don’t have a voice and are not satisfied with the process. It’s costly. It’s time consuming. And it’s biased on how much money you have and the color of your skin.”

Maori origins

Abramson learned about restorative justice in Australia, where her colleagues adapted it from the Maori in New Zealand.

“Many indigenous cultures had a way of justice that was inclusive,” she said. “It lets the people involved understand what happened and decide the outcomes.

“An important piece we got from the Maori is to include everybody and their supporters,” she continued. “That way, everyone feels supported, and no one feels cornered or isolated.”

A trained facilitator guides the group by asking three questions. First: What happened? Next, everybody gets to say how they were affected. “It’s very emotional and lets people say what they feel,” Abramson said. “If we don’t allow that, people feel angry.”

Third: What can you do to repair the harm and not let it happen again?

“There could be acknowledgement and healing and accountability—instead of finding nuances in the law to win a case,” Abramson said. “We need to address emotional harm. That’s who we are. But it’s been leached out of the criminal legal system entirely.”

Cheaper alternative

Some people object that restorative justice is too touchy-feely.

“People say that it lets criminals off the hook,” Abramson said. “I say, off the hook is when people get arrested and rearrested and released until they do something really bad, and then the hammer comes down. Or in juvenile court, where there’s a 50 percent dismissal rate. I’m always asking, where is the current court system doing a better job? If it is, then we should just stick with that.”

Further, recidivism rates are sky-high in the court system. At the CCC, people who go the through the conferencing process for felony offenses are half as likely to be rearrested after one year—and at, Abramson noted, a tenth the cost.

“Punishment tells us what not to do,” Abramson pointed out. “It tells us nothing about what to do. We need to be providing opportunities for  acknowledging mistakes and helping people learn to do better in the future—or we’re doomed.”

The CCC’s success is not unnoticed. It receives financial support from the Maryland Judiciary’s Department of Family Administration and the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. In addition, the CCC helped launch six other community conferencing programs around the state and fields calls from around the country.

“We need to realize what a machine the court system is,” Abramson said. “And stop thinking that restorative justice is an alternative. It’s a highly social and cost-effective way to deliver justice.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.


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One comment

  1. cflohr@bflawmd.com

    Community Conferencing is an absolutely wonderful tool. I have used it in cases as serious as homicide as well as misdemeanors. It does not always have to be an alternative to court but can also be used in conjunction with a court proceeding. For example, in a criminal sentencing hearing, there are often many sensitive areas to cover that do not lend themselves to a discussion in a public courtroom.

    I only wish I had learned about this modality earlier in my career.