Over the last decade, there has been a steady increase in awareness and recognition that many youth involved with the juvenile justice system, particularly those who have experienced foster care, have been exposed to multiple types of traumatic events. This can include incidences of physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, community violence or neglect that impact youth before they first come to the attention of law enforcement.
Within the juvenile justice system, these youth often experience harsh punishment and incarceration, which can compound their trauma and weaken their ability to succeed in school, obtain employment, and develop healthy self-esteem and long-term relationships. However, by offering an alternative to punishment, there is an opportunity for youth to avoid re-victimization and to decrease re-offending.
Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine works with The Kempe Center and touts the benefits of restorative justice, a practice that brings together the young people who offended, their families, victims and the community to address the harms in a non-criminalizing and non-punitive manner. She has been researching, implementing and promoting restorative practices in child welfare and juvenile justice systems for over two decades.
“Restorative justice is about repairing the harm that has been done,” she explains. “With this practice, there is a focus on accountability, responsibility, and righting the wrong which leads to rebuilding positive relationships among the youth, family members, the victim(s), police and the community.”
In the traditional juvenile justice system, professionals ask questions like: What laws have been broken? What punishment does the offender deserve? Under the restorative justice model, questions are framed differently: What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime? What needs to be done to repair the harm? Who has been impacted and what do they need?
From a restorative justice perspective, rehabilitation cannot be achieved until the offender acknowledges the harm caused to victims and communities and makes amends.
At Kempe, we believe it is imperative to provide this kind of positive support for juveniles who commit crimes so that we can reduce their chances of reoffending and stop their trajectory from the juvenile justice to the criminal justice system. When post-traumatic emotional and behavioral problems are effectively addressed in all services and programs within the juvenile justice system, everyone — youths and their families, adults who are responsible for public safety, and the entire community — can become safer and healthier.