The paintings and poetry flanking the room, created by inmates at the Santa Cruz County Jail, laid a fitting backdrop for a conversation about the criminal justice  system.

About 80 Santa Cruz residents packed into the Resource Center for Nonviolence, across the street from the Santa Cruz Courthouse, to witness a presentation by prominent advocates of restorative justice on Nov. 1. Craig Haney, a UC Santa Cruz professor of psychology with an affiliation in legal studies, organized the forum to encourage residents to consider the alternative to the traditional, punitive model of criminal justice practiced in the United States.

After Haney’s opening remarks, civil rights attorney, activist and restorative justice advocate Fania Davis began a keynote speech by leading the audience in a call-and-response recitation of a traditional Zulu greeting. The greeting translates to “I see you.”

Fania Davis, a national restorative justice expert and the second speaker, stands boldly on stage voicing past situations requiring the involvement of restorative justice. Photo by Christina Bulosan.

“I see your goodness. I see you beyond the worst thing you have ever done. I see you beyond the worst thing that has ever been done to you,” Davis said to the crowd. “Restorative justice is rooted in indigenous wisdom, and in the Afrocentric worldview human beings are good by nature and have equal moral worth and dignity. This is a core value of restorative justice.”

Davis grew up in the heart of Birmingham, Alabama with her sister Angela during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Of the four girls killed in the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in 1963, two were close friends of Davis. She said that in many ways she dedicates her life’s work to them. Today, that work centers on promoting restorative justice practices.

Restorative justice is a paradigm of conflict resolution seeking to address and redress harms. This approach contrasts the westernized conception of justice through punitive and retributive harm on the offender. A restorative approach to justice is generally accomplished through a facilitated dialogue between offender and victim, with the goal of attaining mutual acknowledgment of harms inflicted and agreeing upon a remedy for those harms. 

“Retributive justice, [the justice system in place today], doesn’t really address the needs of people, especially persons harmed, communities harmed,” Davis said. “It seeks to blame and punish.”

Among the effects of Davis’ advocacy is the implementation of the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) program. In the pilot instance of the program at West Oakland Middle School, RJOY reduced suspensions by 87 percent and eliminated expulsions and violent incidents. Teacher attrition was also reduced, and graduation rates went up 60 percent. 

After Davis’ talk, four additional legal professionals took the stage in a panel to share their efforts to promote restorative practices in the U.S. justice system. Among the panelists was Judge Leslie Kobayashi of the District Court of Hawai’i, who incorporates restorative justice in her  sentencing.

From left to right: Panelists Alaya Vautier, Lorenn Walker, Leslie Kobayashi and Katherine Weinstein Miller and John Leopold listen to one audience member’s question and comments during the Q&A section of the night. Photo by Christina Bulosan.

“We want a recognition of you learning you don’t [harm] somebody else,” Kobayashi said. “Then we want also for you to take responsibility for that, [to say] ‘I did this to you.’”

Judge Kobayashi provides those she sentences with the opportunity to offer acknowledgment of harm and responsibility, either via verbal statement or written letter. She also encourages dialogue between victims, offenders and the families and loved ones of each.

Restorative practices also have tangible organizational benefits. Katherine Weinstein Miller of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, another panelist, spoke at length about San Francisco’s Neighborhood Court  program. 

These courts address nonviolent misdemeanor offenses where the victim and offender meet with a volunteer arbitrator to resolve the case in a restorative manner, outside of the actual courtroom as an alternative to being charged and tried the usual way. 

This not only dramatically reduced caseloads in the traditional court system, Miller said, but parties involved in the arbitration program had a 91 percent completion rate. Cases resolved through Neighborhood Court are also 82 percent cheaper than traditionally resolved cases.

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and UC presidential chair, is the first speaker of the night for restorative justice at the Resource Center for  Nonviolence. Photo by Christina Bulosan

After the panelists’ presentations, the four took questions from the audience before a final segue into closing remarks by Craig Haney. Audience members walked away with positive impressions of the event.

“Thinking about how justice is dealt with in our society, these big ideas of how our world is structured, that’s incredibly important for everyone to do,” said 

audience member and UCSC student Luke Ready. 

The forum ultimately stressed the potential for restorative justice to improve community outcomes as a whole.

“That’s what all these processes are [for], just to make our community safer. All of those people we send off to prison, they come home at some point,” said Judge Leslie Kobayashi. “They’re going to be our neighbors […] and I want to make sure my neighborhood, and those that my kids live in and my family members and loved ones, are safe neighborhoods because these people have changed, and recognized and accepted responsibility.”