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Restorative Justice: Continuing Georgia’s Juvenile Justice Revolution

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Alan Mackie (left), Director, Get the Data LLC and Elizabeth Beck, Professor, School of Social Work, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, restorative justice

Alan Mackie (left), Director, Get the Data LLC and Elizabeth Beck, Professor, School of Social Work, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University

By Alan Mackie and Elizabeth Beck

In a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, it is heartening to observe Georgia bucking the trend. Much of the credit for this should be given to Gov. Nathan Deal who commissioned the Special Council for Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia shortly after taking office in 2011.

The council’s work eventually led to bipartisan support of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2013, which ensures that only the most serious and violent juvenile offenders  are sentenced to state custody.

While much of the language of reform is couched in a utilitarian language of “risk assessment,” “recidivism” and “cost effectiveness,” the reforms themselves are to be welcomed. Not only do they present an opportunity to reduce the harm of incarceration on Georgia’s juvenile offenders, they also equip youth with the tools they need to enter adulthood successfully.

However, more can be done. To address the harm done by crime, a restorative approach to juvenile justice should be adopted. Unlike the traditional adversarial process, restorative justice empowers both the offender and the victim to narrate what happened and describe the impact it had.

And in making the shift from retribution to restoration, the outcome might involve financial reparation or restitution, but often the victim is simply keen to get an apology, an explanation or the chance to be heard.

Bringing the victim and the offender together in a restorative process requires time, preparation and the use of professional and trained staff. Research from Europe, North America and Australasia provides ample evidence that this is time well spent.

Not only do victims report high levels of satisfaction with the restorative process (often in contrast to their exclusion from the adversarial process), there is increasing evidence that restorative justice is effective in reducing recidivism. However, the real benefits to society are empowering individuals to deal with the consequences of offending, to make amends, restore relationships and rebuild communities.

Restorative justice is more than a response to offending behavior. It is a set of principles that can transform the way in which communities are able to respond to harm caused by individuals.

It is an idea that has come of age because it offers a humane and cost-effective alternative to a justice system that has become enmeshed with the prison-industrial complex. We would argue that it is a “win-win-win-win” approach that has benefits not only for offenders and the taxpayer, but for victims and communities, too.

Georgia cannot afford to see the reforms of the past eight years go into reverse. As the state enters an election year for a new governor and for the state legislature, we urge candidates to make restorative justice an election pledge, and to continue bipartisan reform.

Alan Mackie is director of Get the Data, LLC, and has led evaluations of restorative justice programs in the United Kingdom. Elizabeth Beck is a professor in the School of Social Work at the Andrew Young School Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

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