Restorative Justice, COVID-19 and ‘Virtual Circles’

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Illustration by Andew Dexcel via Flickr

COVID-19 presents numerous challenges at the moment, but one of the biggest is how to help people whose primary work is providing care to others maintain their own mental health and stay connected to one another.

In New York City, there are countless social workers, case managers, street outreach workers, and many others who are responsible for engaging our city’s most vulnerable  populations.  Taking care of front-line staff is not a luxury for organizations that are working to help young people, survivors of abuse, parolees, and other justice system-involved individuals.

It is essential.

At the Center for Court Innovation, we operate programs in dozens of locations, across New York and as far away as California.  Given these realities, there is a real need to figure out how to help people feel connected to one another—and to the larger mission of the organization.

Restorative justice offers some valuable tools that can aid in this process.

We have been learning from the Navajo peacemaking tradition to address the isolation at the heart of many problems in our society, including conflict and abuse, to help the populations we work with—and the caregivers who work with that population.

Using a restorative circle process, we provide an intimate, facilitated space for participants, ideally ten people or fewer, to connect with one another and discuss issues of importance.

During this time of “shelter-in-place,” we have reimagined restorative circles as “Virtual Circles” —by using the Internet.

These circles grow directly out of the concept of restorative justice—a framework for community-building and responding to harm, that is aimed at bringing the people directly affected by a problem to the center of the solution.

By engaging in a restorative process, participants work together to find a way to heal and move forward.  Restorative justice is often contrasted with the conventional legal system in the United States, which tends to focus most of its energies on assigning blame and meting out punishment.

At the Center, we have attempted to spread the use of restorative justice in a variety of settings.

For example, we have worked with high schools to use restorative justice to improve school culture and reduce suspensions. In New York City, we have worked in The Bronx to offer circles as an alternative to going to court for those who have been arrested for minor offenses.

And we have worked with courts and the broader communities in Syracuse and Brooklyn to use Native American peacemaking practices to resolve cases where participants have ongoing relationships, including serious conflicts between neighbors or family members.

In Manhattan, we’re getting ready to offer a range of restorative processes for all kinds of people in crisis and conflict.

And as COVID-19 has forced many of us to self-quarantine, we are using “virtual circles” to help our own staff navigate the challenges that they face on a daily basis.

Restorative circles are not meant to be a therapeutic support group. There is no expert clinician dispensing wisdom to those in need of help.  In a circle, all are presumed equal, although we still acknowledge the power dynamics that enter the room with us.

A facilitator takes responsibility for the opening and closing ceremonies and for safeguarding the process, but in general we all participate in the circle at the same level as other participants.

Staff can attend the virtual circles convened by the Center from their own homes. Some of the circles explore fun topics like cooking or DJing. And some are helping participants grapple with difficult subjects, like how to deal with grief or how to parent in a time of crisis.

No matter what the topic is, every person gets to speak.  And everybody has to listen.  Listening without interrupting is an act of generosity.  It isn’t always easy to sit in silence and truly listen to somebody, but the more you do it, the more you understand how much we need each other in order to survive and thrive.

We are all in a lot of Zoom meetings these days.  But a virtual circle is meant to be different, even if it uses the same technology.

One way we accomplish this is through ceremony.  By lighting candles and doing breathing exercises, we help participants tune out whatever else is happening in their lives at the moment and focus on the conversation.

Creating virtual circles is obviously not ideal, but there are some silver linings.  The technology allows you to see everyone’s faces up close, which means that sometimes the process can actually be more intimate than an in-person meeting.

Virtual circles also eliminate the need for the headaches of transportation. It’s just an hour, and you can do it from wherever you are.

While virtual circles can be used to deal with an immediate problem or conflict, we are primarily using them to help foster connection and goodwill throughout our community.

Erika Sasson

Erika Sasson. Photo by Samiha Amin Meah

Our current pandemic is a chaos machine that is creating a host of new challenges, while exacerbating pre-existing structural divisions like inequality and racism.  But, in its own way, the pandemic is also helping to point us toward solutions.

The coronavirus has provided us with a powerful reminder that we are all interconnected. The only way forward is together.

When we deepen our connections to each other, we also begin to lay the foundation for more fundamental systemic change. Embracing restorative justice is one way for us to truly put people first.

Erika Sasson is the Director of Restorative Practices at the Center for Court Innovation.

One thought on “Restorative Justice, COVID-19 and ‘Virtual Circles’

  1. N0. It’s simply more convenient for employers to outsource their responsibilities, and transfer them to a private company whose job it is to enforce penalties. Question: Does the example presuppose that the accused shoplifter is in fact guilty? This is important, because enforcement companies paid by employers don’t always have a good track record when it comes to conflict resolutioni.

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