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How we use restorative justice in shelter

August 11, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongMethod
I previously wrote about the value of restorative justice in shelter settings even during COVID-19, but here I’d like to talk about how we actually facilitate this work in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP).

First, it’s important to clarify that restorative justice is separate from our immediate tactics for deescalating a situation. Where there is an act of violence, a provocation of violence, or a threat of violence taking place, de-escalation and the protective use of force are necessary. Restorative justice is the reflective process of determining how we move forward after the incident has de-escalated.

When I say “reflective process,” what I mean is a collaborative, conversational process involving shelter guests and staff. In our culture, there often is no conversation; people in power simply make decisions and then pronounce them. But at the CSP, guests and staff speak with each other openly about what justice means, what it looks like in their shelter community, and then decide together how to achieve it after incidents of wrongdoing occur.

These conversations are very countercultural, and it can help to have a guide to follow along. With that in mind, here is the guide I put together for the CSP and which can be adapted for use in other settings.

The framework for our process comes from the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In it, they distinguish between three kinds of conversations we can (and should) have in response to conflict, wrongdoing, or harm:

  • What happened?
  • What does it mean?
  • How do we move forward?

In terms of justice, these conversations provide useful information that helps lead to decisions that are decent, fair, and thoughtful. They also provide a clear method for the people involved in a conflict to participate in the process of resolving it.

However, from a restorative justice perspective, these questions are limited in two important ways. First, the language presumes that there is only one, “right” perspective to what happened, what it means, and how we move forward, when there may be many valid perspectives. Second, the questions can easily lead us to treat justice as an intellectual exercise, when in reality it also involves feelings, relationships, etc.

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For these reasons, I adapted the Difficult Conversations questions to the following format. It is flexible enough to be used with all stakeholders in an incident — those primarily impacted, those responsible, and those who witnessed it or have important insights about it.

Here’s how it works.

First, the shelter staff-member asks a particular shelter guest four questions:

  • What happened from your perspective?
  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • How do you think other people have been impacted by what happened?
  • All things considered, what do you think would be a fair outcome?

After listening to the responses, the staff-member reciprocates the process and shares the following:

  • Now I would like to tell you what happened from my perspective…
  • This is how I feel about what happened…
  • This is how I have been impacted, and how I have seen other people impacted by what happened…
  • All things considered, this is the decision I am prepared to make…
  • What do you think about that decision?

The question about feelings is particularly important. On the one hand, it provides insight into what victims of wrongdoing need in order to recover from an incident. For example, if a shelter guest has his shoes stolen, he might need more than a replacement pair of shoes. If he feels scared, alone, emasculated, and betrayed, there is additional work to be done to help him recover and move forward. The harm goes much deeper than the loss of a material objet, meaning we need to inquire more deeply than “What happened?”

On the other hand, the question about feelings also helps us assess whether and to what extent perpetrators are taking accountability for their actions. If the person who stole the shoes says, “I feel embarrassed because I needed shoes for work, and I had to steal them from someone else in order to keep my job,” that is very different than him saying, “the punk had it coming.” At the most basic level, we ask about feelings because it affirms the humanity of the people involved, all of whom are thinking and feeling beings.

This is a point echoed in the work of Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served on the Human Rights Violations committee of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In her memoir, A Human Being Died That Night, she describes a series of interviews she completed with Eugene de Kock, a senior figure of the apartheid government’s security force and a man known as “Prime Evil” for his brutal acts of violence.

Throughout the book, Gobodo-Madikizela raises the question of what our attitude should be towards people who have committed human rights violations and other acts of violence. According to her, we must reaffirm their humanity in order to truly hold them accountable. When we recognize a perpetrator of violence as a human being, rather than a one-dimensional “monster” or “criminal,” then we acknowledge that there exists the possibility of transformation. This matters — because if the possibility of transformation exists then there also exists the responsibility to transform. If you’re just a monster, you’re off the hook — no one expects you to change, to take accountability, or transform; so why bother?

But people do change; they do take accountability, and they do transform. To that end, restorative justice is part of a worldview in which all of life is seen to be in the process of changing and growing.

In the Church Shelter Program, we bring the same philosophy into our approach to disciplinary action, and by doing so we are creating a new culture of justice. I’ll close by sharing an example of what I mean:

One evening, a guest named Marvin entered the shelter and attempted to steal a phone from another guest’s storage bin. That guest, Kevin, interrupted the theft and immediately alerted the staff. In response, Marvin began threatening to harm Kevin, which led the shelter supervisor to ask Marvin to leave for the night.

When I spoke with Kevin the following day about the incident, he shared that while Marvin’s behavior was unacceptable, he did not think discharging him to the street would be fair. In fact, Kevin acknowledged that he had also stolen phones to finance his addiction at various points in his life, and in that sense he empathized with Marvin. Kevin asked us to transfer Marvin to one of our other shelters and give him a second chance.

When I spoke with Marvin, he recognized that he had violated the community’s trust and was prepared to leave. When we told him that Kevin had asked us to give him a second chance, Marvin was surprised, but readily accepted the offer.

Several weeks later, there was an incident at the new shelter where Marvin was staying. A guest named Brian had repeatedly asked another guest to lower the volume on his phone. When the guest ignored him, Brian picked up a chair and was about to hit the man when staff intervened and grabbed it from him.

Brian voluntarily left the shelter that night, and met with me the following day. During our conversation, we agreed that it was fair for me to meet with the other shelter guests to discuss the matter before making a final decision about how to move forward. Brian also agreed to wait outside the shelter that evening, in case the community wanted to speak with him.

During the meeting, all of the guests present agreed that Brian’s behavior was disproportionate, aggressive, and threatening. For that reason, they were unanimous that Brian should be discharged to the street.

But then Marvin spoke up. He said, “When I was at St. Mary’s, I stole from someone. The guy I stole from could have told staff to discharge me from the program entirely, but he didn’t. He said I deserved some mercy, and asked for me to be moved here. It’s been a few weeks, and I think the move has been good for me. So I think we should show Brian some mercy too, and give him the option of going to St. Mary’s.”

None of the other guests had considered this possibility, but once they reflected on it they all agreed that it was the more humane course of action. As a result, Brian was immediately admitted to St. Mary’s, which proved to be a more supportive environment for him.

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