Skidmore Conference Takes a Healing Approach toward Crime
The American criminal justice system is failing, says Skidmore Professor David Karp.
According to a 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, more than 40% of people released from prisons across the country in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years – something known as the recidivism rate. Other studies place that rate even higher. Two studies by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics based on information from the 1980s and 1990s found recidivism rates as high as 67%.
While some of those returning to prison do so because of parole violations not related to crime, many others return because they are involved in some other criminal action. So if the purpose of imprisoning people is to prevent crime, or to stop criminals from committing additional crimes, it would appear not to be working.
The cost of keeping people in prison, meanwhile, is high. According to that same Pew report, penal systems in states across the country are spending $52 billion a year on their corrections departments, most of that on keeping offenders locked up. Keeping one person in prison for a year costs on average more than $31,000. In New York, that figure is much higher – by one estimate, $60,000 a year.
And crime itself, according to one recent study, costs Americans $3.2 trillion a year.
But Karp says there’s a better way to deal with offenders, as well as to reduce the cost of crime and the expense of incarceration. It’s more effective in dealing with those who commit crimes, and it’s much more cost effective, he says. It’s called Restorative Justice.
Restorative Justice will be the subject of a conference and workshop on the campus of Skidmore College this weekend. A pre-conference session on Restorative Justice for primary schools began on Thursday, and Saturday and Sunday there will be a session on Restorative Justice for College Student Misconduct. Interested educators and members of the public are welcome to attend.
“Restorative justice is an alternative philosophy of punishment,” says Karp, “where offenders take responsibility for their offenses by meeting with the people they harmed, identifying what harm was caused, and doing what they can to make things right.”
What’s required to implement such a strategy, he says, is a change in how we view crime. “In western justice we think of the crime as against the state, and it’s really the violation of the law that’s the problem; but in other cultural settings the offense is against people, so the victims, and the obligations are toward the victims, not the debt to society or the state.”
One reason the cost of a restorative justice approach is so low – as much as two thirds less than the current justice system Karp says – is that restorative justice involves mediation rather than cells. “It’s different - It sends a different message about ownership. Who is responsible, and who the primary beneficiaries of the justice process are. And so one is more inter-personal and the other is more procedural.”
Skidmore professor David Karp (photo courtesy Mark McCarty, Skidmore)
Restorative approaches to dealing with crime have been around for thousands of years, with many based in traditional native cultures, including here in the U.S. In the 1970s, a Mennonite faith-based movement brought the modern restorative justice movement to the United States.
Such programs are already working on many colleges campuses across the U.S., and Karp says primary schools in Connecticut are also using such a model with great early success.
Implementing a restorative justice model in the U.S. would not mean an end to prisons. Karp says prison would provide an alternative for those who will not take responsibility for their crimes. But restorative justice would provide an opportunity for many to repair the real cost of their actions. “We say they paid their debt to society by going to prison, but in what way have they really paid the debt? They may have just incurred more debt, since we’ve now paid extra cost to house them, feed them, guard them, and really haven’t done anything to repair the harm they’ve caused.”
“It’s about healing and a different kind of accountability,” Karp says. “I think a more meaningful accountability. So it’s about them taking moral responsibility as opposed to just taking a beating. In the end, it’s about repairing harm and building trust.”
Speakers this weekend will include Sujatha Baliga, who is the director of the restorative justice project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, CA. She will deliver the luncheon keynote address on Saturday. Danielle Sered, the director of Common Justice, a project of the Vera Institute, will be providing an introduction to restorative justice principles and practices. The program will also include panels of practitioners and people who have participated in restorative justice conferences.
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