The criminal justice system is in dire need of innovation. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, U.S. prisons house about 22% of the world’s incarcerated adult population (Roy 2013). 95% of prisoners are eventually released and two out of three ex-inmates re-offend (Prison Fellowship). Restorative Justice offers a promising solution to mass incarceration and high rates or recidivism. Re-offense rates following a Restorative Justice process are decreased to 10% and the participant satisfaction rate (for victims, offenders, and community members) is consistently above 95% (RJ Colorado). Through the process, damaged relationships are healed and the community is strengthened.
The following except from an interview with Longmont Public Safety Chief Mike Butler explains how it was frustration with the ineffectiveness of the mainstream criminal justice system that led him to integrate restorative justice in his police department. This work has been accomplished in partnership with Longmont Community Justice Partnership and has provided an innovative and highly effective model for integrating restorative justice with police work. This model is one that has been replicated by other cities, and that will hopefully continue to gain traction in the coming years.
Q: Why did you decide to integrate restorative justice into the Police Department?
A: Having worked in the criminal justice system for as long as I have and seeing the results over a period of time and its effectiveness or lack thereof and believing there are other forces out there that could be brought to bear that could have more impact on keeping our communities safe. There had to be a better way of figuring this out. It all started with “this isn’t working, something is amiss.” We came to work and lived with a level of ineffectiveness and no one was asking questions. We just keep doing what we’re doing, going down a path of insanity.
Q: How did you begin the process of integrating a Restorative Justice program?
A: I began talking to elected officials, officers, and school officials, writing briefings, and having conversations with everyone. Then eventually I had to pull the trigger and say we’re going to try something new. You know you’re going to get push back when you introduce something different from what people have been trained and taught to do.
It was conviction, finding champions, conversations, beginning the development of awareness and a different level of consciousness of what’s possible. Slowly, it became more institutionalized. It wasn’t something I could force. It’s one conversation, one gathering, and one person at a time. No magic bullet out there, it’s just the work and staying with it.
Q: What advice would you give to Restorative Justice Organizations hoping to partner with police in their communities?
A: I would bring in other police departments who have gone down that path. Find a department where they’ve had success and say these folks are police folks they know how to talk to other police folks. We have gone to police departments at their request to say here is why we did it, and here are the results. If you know anyone with leverage who could champion this, have this conversation with them. Everyone wants results and data; have it at the ready.
It comes down to conversations, relationships, conviction, bringing in people from other police departments. There’s not a lot of magic. It’s just a matter of conviction, staying with it, going at it again and again. You can say that with just about any process or change.
There are police departments on bended knee right now trying to figure out how to make different relationships with their community. More than ever, they are wanting to figure out new ways of doing business. Will we just be the hammer that comes down on people? Or can we be something else in our community? That question looms big now more than ever. The ground is fertile, the time is ripe, the window of opportunity is big now, so jump on it. Now is time to bring all these things into play.