In your community

Endorsing, embracing restorative practices as a community

On the rebound, Central Falls emerges as a lively experiment, with a new goal: making the square mile city child friendly

Photo by Richard Asinof

Retired Superior Court Judge Judith Savage addresses the 2017 Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice symposium at Rhode Island College on May 18.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/22/17
A far-ranging conversation around changing the dynamics of “punishment” in the school system and the criminal justice system in Rhode Island occurred last week at the second annual symposium on restorative justice and restorative practices, far, far below the radar screen. The work being done by Central Falls as a laboratory of community social engagement in health and education is changing the trajectory of the square-mile city.
Why did the Working Cities Challenge reject the proposal from Central Falls, given its leadership in developing new community cohesion around social engagement? How can the model of restorative justice, as practiced in the Central Falls schools, become a model for other communities? How can the ongoing work of Barry Lester around children at risk be integrated into the educational approaches being developed around restorative justice? What happens when communities such as Central Falls build out their own health infrastructure, based on the needs of the residents, rather than the needs of hospitals and health systems?
In the original designs of many prisons in America, the entry way to the cell was designed with the idea that the prisoner needed to show penitence, under the Quaker doctrine, hence penitentiary, so that the inmate had to step over a barrier and duck down to enter the cell, and to pursue that penitence in what amounted to solitary confinement.
The idea that the nation can arrest itself out of the current epidemic of drug overdoses, and that harsher sentencing for drug arrests, as proposed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, continues to perpetuate the wrong-headed notion that a severe system of crime and punishment will resolve profound racial, societal and economic disparities.
The opportunity to change that dynamic through the adoption of restorative justice and restorative practices, in our criminal justice system and in our educational systems, provides an enormous change of intent.
Otherwise, we are still stuck in the past, asking those who “break the rules” to step over and duck under the barriers imposed by societal norms. Restorative practices as a form of community engagement in Central Falls are the kind of lively experiment in 21st century Rhode Island that demand a larger voice in the public conversation.

PROVIDENCE – It was one of those important conversations that took place far away from the din and distraction of competing tweet storms by the media in breathless pursuit of breaking news.

It was not a discussion about how to resolve $100 million state budget gaps or how much the state should pay for a new proposed Pawsox stadium; it was not about the Providence city council president resigning or the number of new jobs created by the lure of state tax incentives; it was not about popular chefs telling us where to dine well in Rhode Island.

It was a conversation that would not easily find its way into the content of most political talk shows and news commentaries, nor would it fit into the current trend of Facebook posts.

But it was conversation about a lively experiment now ongoing in Rhode Island: the move toward restorative justice and restorative practices, in communities and schools, with the current work in Central Falls schools serving as a successful example of what can be accomplished.

The conversation took place at Rhode Island College on May 18, as part of the second annual “Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice Symposium,” organized by the Youth Restoration Project.

In short, the difference between “retributive” and “restorative” justice is the way that crime is viewed: “retributive” justice views crime as an act against the state and its laws, a concept that dates back 1,000 years to William the Conqueror, according to Julia Steiny, founder and director of the Youth Restoration Project.

By contrast, in “restorative” justice, crime is viewed as an act against individuals and the community, and that crime control lies primarily within the community. Accountability is taking responsibility and repairing harm, within a justice process that involves all voices in dialogue to negotiate reparation to the victim and the community, in which victims are central to the process.

Restorative practices have been adopted as a fundamental approach to address behavioral problems at schools in Central Falls. In 2014, the National Institute of Justice awarded a $3.58 million grant to the Central Falls School District to create and evaluate a Restorative Justice Conferencing system, in Central Falls and three other schools.

The results in the last few years in Central Falls, according to Victor Capellan, superintendent of the Central Falls School District, have shown that the conferencing approach has achieved a significant reduction in school suspensions.

Converts to the cause
The symposium featured a number of notable converts to the cause of restorative justice, including: retired Superior Court Judge Judith Savage; Dr. Margaret Paccione, director of Clinical Innovation at Bradley Hospital, and Sue Pearlmutter, dean of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College.

Savage gave one of the symposium’s keynotes, describing what she saw as the need to shift thinking from punitive to restorative in the state’s criminal justice system.

Justice, Savage said, is now often “measured by the extent of jail, the extent of punishment.”

Savage railed against what she called the “mass incarceration” policies, both here in Rhode Island and in the nation, and, in particular, what she called a system of “mass probation” in Rhode Island, despite a falling crime rate over the last few decades.

“Jail should be reserved for the few who are incapable of conforming to society’s rules,” she said.

She also talked about the way that the mass incarceration policies reinforce racial disparities, with the higher likelihood that African American and Hispanic men will find themselves behind bars.

Savage told of a case she had heard as a judge that involved a woman, an alcoholic, who had hurt an elderly man in a driving accident.

Instead of the usual courtroom drama, with the victim invited to direct their anger and outrage at the defendant, with the prosecutors demanding harsh punishment, and the defendant remaining silent at his or her attorney’s advice, something different occurred.

Instead of vengeance, the elderly man wanted the alcoholic woman to get help, to restore herself, Savage said. As a result, the woman went in rehab, was able to return to work, and to contribute to the elderly man’s medical expenses.

This case was, Savage continued, “about as close to restorative justice as the [current] system can get. It is not a true restorative justice model.”

“It is very hard to change, hard to change our schools, our culture, hard to change the criminal justice system,” she said.

Later, when the participants broke into small group discussions, Savage led a conversation about how to promote peer-coaching for newly released felon, given the restrictive language of the current law that says co-mingling with other felons is a parole violation.

Shared stories
The symposium also featured parents, teachers, students and supervisors talking about how the restorative practices had been applied to their lives.

Paccione, in another symposium keynote, talked about the importance of recognizing trauma as part of the conversation, because most children arrive at school already carrying a reservoir of trauma, which can result in developmental delays in language and cognitive functioning.

Capellan then discussed how restorative tools could be applied to a community, recounting stories from Central Falls.

Central Falls, a child-friendly city
Much has been written about the decline of Central Falls: the bankruptcy, the state takeover of the schools, the corruption trial of the former mayor, and the loss of numerous manufacturing firms.

In turn, not that much has been written about Central Falls as a new kind of laboratory for community and social engagement, with its effort to develop one of the state’s first Neighborhood Health Stations, to adapt restorative practices in its schools, and now, in an initiative announced at the symposium, to make the square-mile city a child-friendly community.

Mayor James Diossa, in announcing the new initiative, said the plan would be to track and seek to improve the environment, based upon 10 to 12 interrelated indicators, similar to the work done by Rhode Island Kids Count, working to improve outcomes in such areas as teen pregnancy.

Diossa said the work would involve partnerships and collaborations at the local level with the police, the local department of health, and the schools, with a focus on long-term outcomes.

“It is fundamental for our community, after the bankruptcy,” Diossa told ConvergenceRI in an interview after his presentation, to recognize that “we need to work on the framework, the quality of life issues, in education and health.”

On the health side, Diossa continued, we have been tackling it very well, with the creation of a city office of health, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Fine.

The new initiative will target teen pregnancy, opiate abuse, obesity and even smoking, Diossa said.

“Some would argue that the state is already tackling [these issues],” he said. “But I think that tackling it from a grassroots effort can make much more of an impact.”

In the initiative announced today, Diossa explained, the city is looking to create a different dynamic around children’s behavior, so that in the long run, they are more successful. And, he added, “So they don’t end up in places we don’t want them to end up.”

Measuring results
At one of the small group breakout discussions, Megan Swindal and Joel Stewart of DataSpark talked about what participants saw as the data needs to quantify the results of the restorative justice work.

The small group discussed the ways in which greater social and emotional well being could be captured, as well as the sense that students were being heard.

Another issue raised was how potential causal relationships, such as data from lead poisoned children, could be integrated into the findings.

A third issue was how the data results could be broken down from the large datasets to individual schools and school districts.

What emerged in the conversation was the fact, that under the previous director of the Rhode Island Department of Education, Deborah Gist, surveys related to the students’ sense of their school “climate” had apparently been dropped, creating a three-year gap in survey results.

Those surveys, known as SurveyWorks, have been reinstituted, with the results expected to be shared soon, according to one participant.

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