Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Conference to explore making peace

Approach allows victim, offender to repair a harm

The internationally recognized symbol for peace is simple: a circle with three lines. Every point along the closed curve is equidistant from the center, where imaginary lines that exude from those points meet. The three lines enclosed by the circle intersect at the center too.

Indigenous cultures have long relied on peacemaking circles to restore peace among a victim, offender, and the community. The custom though is more than a symbol, it is a practice that relies on the same structure as a peace sign: three players rather than three lines — the victim, offender, and the community — intersect at the center to repair a harm, to establish peace.

Circles are a bedrock of the contemporary restorative justice process, an approach to justice that has a victim, offender, and the community voluntarily meet and use respectful dialogue to repair a harm. Although they have been around for centuries, they have only emerged in the contemporary world in the last 40 years.

“Restorative justice has such tremendous potential to transform our culture and transform the retributive justice system, a system that is based on harming people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong. And we know that harmed people go on to harm people until our whole culture is pervaded by harm,” said Fania Davis, a grass-roots leader in restorative justice.

Ms. Davis will be one of hundreds of national and international academics, practitioners, and activists in the fields of restorative and racial justice to meet in Toledo on Wednesday. The three-day, Fourth National Conference on Restorative Justice, a biannual event, will teach attendees about indigenous peacemaking circles, how grass-roots organizations and legislative bodies have successfully introduced communities to restorative justice practices, and how restorative justice can change the lives of juveniles in school and adults in the criminal justice system.

For Ms. Davis, a co-founder and executive director of a juvenile restorative justice nonprofit in Oakland and a civil rights activist and trial lawyer since the 1960s, the conference also will be a “watershed moment” in the history of the restorative justice movement.

No previous conference, she said, has intentionally brought racial justice and restorative justice scholars together to focus on national restorative justice conversations.

“The restorative justice movement has historically been perceived as primarily a white movement, in the same way that the peace movement, women’s rights movement, environmental movement, and others were perceived as and became white movements. And it is my view that any movement, to be successful, must be multi-ethnic and address issues of race, culture, and privilege. This conference is so exciting for me … and this will start to happen in Toledo.”

The conference at The Hotel @ UTMC, on the former Medical College of Ohio campus, will feature speeches by Ms. Davis’ sister, the national and radical civil rights activist and feminist Angela Davis, leading American anti-race activist Tim Wise, former Navajo Nation Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, and Colorado State Rep. Pete Lee.

Youth, criminal justice system participants, lawmakers, and the community are welcome to register and attend. The conference fee is $300.

If funds are left over after the event, half will go to help fund the next conference, which is in two years at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. The other half will stay in Toledo to support a restorative justice program locally.

In the last decade, the seeds of restorative justice practices have been slowly spreading across the country.

Hundreds of programs have sprung up in cities such as Oakland and in states including Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, and Vermont.

But growth has been slow in Ohio, and particularly Toledo.

Conference co-chairman Gina Paris, an adjunct instructor at Lourdes University, said she has been working with fellow co-chair Morris Jenkins, chairman of the University of Toledo’s criminal justice department, for the last 13 years to introduce restorative justice practices to the Toledo area. Although Ms. Paris said she and Mr. Jenkins have had some success spreading restorative justice, it has not been embraced as she would like.

She said, “Toledo is in the middle of several areas that have restorative justice programs … We’d like to see the community open up to the practice and we hope it will catch on here.”

Restorative justice needs champions from the local judicial and school systems — public defenders and principles — to create programs that prove it can work, said Mr. Lee.

A criminal defense lawyer for more than 30 years, Mr. Lee said he became familiar with restorative justice through a community program in Colorado Springs. After years of watching offenders return to crime and incarceration rates steadily rise, he said he has seen restorative justice practices work and has become “convinced” that it offers a better method for dealing with offenses than the conventional criminal justice system.

Mr. Lee said he plans to talk about the powerful and respectful dialogue he has witnessed between a victim and offender as a result of Colorado’s restorative justice bill.

Both bills he proposed became law and have made it possible for victims and offenders in the criminal and juvenile justice systems to respectfully come together to heal the harm and address the needs and/or responsibilities of those affected.

From a ninth-grade student who was expelled from school under a zero-tolerance policy only to return after speaking with administrators to determine the source of his harm and agreeing to right the harm by teaching middle-school students about violence, to a woman who was able to get closure after she spoke with the man responsible for her son’s murder, Mr. Lee said if people can see restorative justice in practice, then they will see that it works.

“You have to make people aware of restorative justice and show how it can be applied. That’s why we have conferences like this: to get the word out so people are aware that there is another way to do things.”

Contact Danielle Trubow at: or 419-724-6129.

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