Editorial: And justice for all. No really.
By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
In this country, we pay lip service to the idea that those who break the law must be reformed. It’s even in the names. We have the Alaska Department of Corrections and Fairbanks Correctional Center. Yet, for too long it’s been just lip service. As a society, we tend to care more about punishing people than “correcting” them. This need for retribution comes at the expense of sky-high re-offending rates. Fully two-thirds of offenders released from prison will end up incarcerated again within three years of being released, according to a report by the Alaska Judicial Council. As a justice student, this deeply concerns me. As a famous quote goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
“Restorative justice is an end of insanity,” said Cornelia Stubblefield at a UAF Justice Department chili feed Wednesday, Oct. 13. Restorative justice, also called “peace-making” isn’t about making people pay, it’s about making things right. Advocates of restorative justice believe that it is more important to heal the harm that crime causes than it is to extract a pound of flesh from the criminals themselves. As justice students ate chili, they listened to Stubblefield talk about her work at Pacific Rim Counseling, where she works with felony drunk driving offenders. In Alaska, a third DUI is treated as a felony offense, which means more than a year of prison time. There is another option though, for those who qualify: Judge Raymond Funk’s Wellness Court.
Established two years ago, the Wellness Court program lasts 18 months. The court offers felony drunk drivers a chance to not just avoid prison, but also eventually get their driver’s licenses back. Stubblefield provides Judge Funk with weekly reports on the progress of the program’s members, who are required to have a full-time job, be full-time students or perform 37 hours of community service a week. According to her, the program has had a dozen graduates so far and a success rate of more than 90 percent. This is what restorative justice is all about.
“It works,” said Brian Jarrett, an associate professor of justice at UAF.
According to Mike Daku, also an associate professor with the justice department, restorative justice is “an emerging area that caught fire in the Lower 48 and Canada” before finally coming to Alaska. In addition to Funk’s Wellness Court, there are “therapeutic courts” in Anchorage, Juneau and throughout the state. These courts deal with drunk drivers, juveniles, the elderly and veterans. Now, the restorative justice approach is coming to UAF.
This year, the UAF Justice Department has begun re-threading its curriculum with a restorative justice theme. According to Daku, the emphasis on peace-making will be “infused” in all justice classes, from Introduction to Justice all the way up to the 400-, 500- and 600-level courses. In addition, the department will soon begin offering courses that emphasize the importance of mediation, of alternative dispute resolution and social advocacy. The faculty will have to overcome the biases of what is traditionally a very conservative field of study. Justice students largely view the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong. This makes for strong dedication to the law, but a poor understanding of what motivates somebody to violate the law. Still, the times are changing for students, too.
“I’ve seen a softening of students of that rigid stance,” Daku said.
It isn’t just students softening. According to Daku, the district attorney (DA) for the Fairbanks area, Michael Gray, has demonstrated a willingness to consider restorative options for offenders when possible. Without a willing DA, there simply isn’t any possibility for progress. But it takes more than just a friendly DA or a progressive-minded judge.
It takes a change in the mindset of “we the people.” It’s time we stopped wanting an eye for an eye and time we started thinking about treating the disease of crime instead of the symptoms.