When we speak of restorative justice, we often speak of the opportunity for a person who has committed a crime or otherwise caused harm to hear about how other people have been affected by the act. This is a central feature of the restorative justice process and often has incredibly positive impacts for all involved. However, often harm has been experienced by the person who committed the offense as well, and the restorative justice process can provide a space for self-reflection. One case in particular comes to mind that demonstrates the opportunity for reparation of harm to self.
“Brian isn’t a bad kid. His brother was always in trouble and struggling, but Brian is not that kid.” I heard the worried urgency in Brian’s mother’s voice when we spoke on the phone during our first intake call. “It’s really no big deal, just a curfew ticket. He isn’t a bad kid.”
Brian’s charges were a big deal though. When the officer stopped Brian for a curfew violation, Brian began yelling at the officer and tried to run away. When the officer grabbed his backpack to stop him, he spun around, squaring up on her in an intimidating manner. Brian was 15 and about 6 feet tall, significantly larger than the responding officer. She later shared that, in that moment, she feared that he would be violent and she would have to use a weapon. Brian was ultimately charged with resisting arrest.
In lieu of court, Brian’s case was handled by diversion and was referred to Restorative Justice by his diversion officer. When I met Brian, it didn’t take long to see that this incident was not a full representation of who he is. Brian is bright-eyed and polite. He loves math and science and was already looking at summer internships in engineering. He sings in the school choir and was trying out for the a-cappella group next year. He told me he sings everywhere, from the shower to the lunchroom, no matter who is around. Brian is a good kid who made a mistake and acted in a way he shouldn’t have.
During the conference, Brian spoke clearly and apologetically about the incident. He listened carefully while the officer who he had encountered that night spoke about her thought process in that moment, choking up as she described preparing herself to pull a weapon if necessary. The two community members spoke about their concern for Brian’s safety and their fears that a similar explosion of anger could result in him being hurt or killed in a number of situations. Brian listened, and responded with remorse. He shared that he was touched by the care of the people in the circle.
When Brian’s diversion officer spoke, she spoke of Brian’s older brother. She had known Brian’s older brother when he was an adolescent. “I worked with your brother, Brian, and he got in a lot of trouble for a long time. But this isn’t like you. Having gotten to know you, I don’t think this is what you’re like at all.” Brian started to cry and said, “After this happened, I was really nervous that I have the same problems as him, that I’m as angry as him.” Hearing this, his mother began to cry as well. This interaction illuminated another major harm: harm to Brian and his sense of self.
There are a number of reasons that being arrested, put through the court system, and in extreme cases, through juvenile detention, is harmful to youth. The process requires time and energy away from normal educational and social activities and is a landmine of intricacies that need to be followed exactly. Perhaps most harmful though is the impact of the traditional justice system on self-perception. By treating youth like criminals, we teach them to think of themselves as criminals. The stigmatizing shame experienced by those in the criminal justice system often leads them to reject the rejector (mainstream society) and the rules of the rejector (laws). A solution to this isolation and shame is to turn to criminal subcultures, which provide a culture of pride in delinquency. In this way, failing to properly address harm to self can perpetuate criminal behavior and ultimately make communities less safe.
In Brian’s Restorative Justice process, we had the chance to address harm to self. One of the community members suggested that Brian make a list of qualities he likes about himself. Brian took that idea and ran with it. By the end of the conference, he had described an elaborate music-based art project, decorated with things he likes about himself. Perhaps more important than the specific contract item that arose to address the harm, Brian had the opportunity to sit in a group of people who were there to hear about his mistake, while still seeing him as a whole person and caring deeply about him. He had the opportunity to be embraced and supported by the community, flaws and all.
 For more about the dynamic of shame, see Crime Shame and Reintegration by John Braithwaite.