Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Restorative justice should become the new norm for young offenders

Alternative sentencing guidelines should be offered for young adults as old as 21

The way in which Genele Laird, the 18-year old African-American teen whose arrest video went viral last week, was treated during her ordeal will likely remain controversial for quite some time.

But the way in which Dane County authorities, including District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, City of Madison Police Chief Mike Koval and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney (among many other leaders) handled how to respond to Laird’s actions deserves to be commended. Laird will be entered into a restorative justice program, where she’ll have engage in a process dedicated toward demonstrating her social behavior is adequately adjusted through communications with her victims and law enforcement officials.

Laird’s actions that day warranted her arrest. She allegedly threatened the lives of other individuals, presented a knife to those she threatened, spit on officers and refused to comply with their orders.

That doesn’t necessarily justify the way in which she was treated during her arrest. An ongoing investigation into the actions of the officers needs to be completed by an independent authority.

But the best solution for Laird herself, with regards to her own actions, has likely been found. The restorative justice program that she is now a part of will provide her with an alternative to being tried as an adult in court.

For young people especially, restorative justice can do a lot of good. Restorative justice “emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior...through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders,” including victims. Repairing harm done to victims is just one of the benefits -- restorative justice programs have also been found to produce outcomes that reduce recidivism.

One study in Barron County, Wisconsin, found that young people entered into these types of programs had a much lower recidivism rate. Juvenile crime in the county was reduced almost in half just five years after the restorative justice program began there.

At a time when Wisconsin’s juvenile justice program is being questioned on how it treats youth in corrections facilities, restorative justice programs can offer an alternative that puts focus on correcting bad social habits that an individual may engage in, rather than doling out punishment through imprisonment and strict procedures.

Indeed, Wisconsin’s youth are facing some difficult situations in the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities, including some recent accounts allegedly witnessing...
...staff's use of racial slurs to youth; lack of therapy provided to at least one youth who has repeatedly requested it; overuse of solitary confinement, particularly for youths with mental health issues; lack of timely medical attention; and inappropriate use of restraints.
In Genele Laird’s case, a youth sentencing option wouldn’t have ordinarily been offered to her -- 17-year olds and older are automatically charged in adult courts unless all parties involved can agree to a different set of guidelines. Fortunately, that opportunity presented itself to her, and the restorative justice program she now enters gives her another shot to correct her behavior and personally repair the damage done to her victims.

That sort of option ought to become the norm in these situations rather than the exception. Too often we’re quick to punish rather than seek options that will correct behavior of youth in the long-run.

One option could be arranging for older individuals, like Laird, to be considered for youth sentencing programs more regularly. In some countries, juvenile justice extends to age 21 with successful outcomes for those who enter into them. Wisconsin could set an example for the rest of the nation and adopt such standards in the Badger State.

Whatever approach Wisconsin does take, it needs to center around providing more options for youth offenders. Our youth should not be forgotten after they commit a crime, and emphasis should be on correcting their behavior rather than punishment whenever possible.

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