Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Putting Restorative Justice Into Practice

Fania Davis began her March 20 lecture with a common greeting among the Maasai people of Africa: "Kasserian Ingera"—"How are the children?"

Davis, a civil rights attorney, social justice activist and co-founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, was at Carlow University as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She told her audience to pay particular attention to the Maasai's sentence structure.

"The Maasai don't ask about your children or my children, but all children. All of the children are important to them," she said. "The first thing we must do to bring peace to our communities is to make sure our children are well. Our children are not well, particularly children of color."

She cited statistics that show children with at least one parent who is incarcerated are more likely to have learning disabilities and suffer from depression, anxiety or physical ailments such as asthma. They are also more likely to act out or have behavioral problems in school, which can get them suspended or even arrested, a step along what Davis referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

"Youth incarceration is still the best predictor of adult incarceration," she said.

It's important to recognize that America has a "prison-industrial complex" founded on a system of retributive—or punishment—justice, Davis said.
—"Retributive justice is based on the Roman notion of just desserts," she said. "If someone does harm to someone else, the only way in this system to bring society back into balance is to harm the perpetrator."

Davis, however, advocates restorative justice, which she said is growing rapidly across the country. Restorative justice asks three questions:

• Who was harmed?
• What are the needs and responsibilities of everyone who was impacted?
• How do we all come together to address needs and responsibilities and heal the harm?

"Restorative justice invites a paradigm shift," she said. "Our current system doesn't address the needs of those who were impacted by a crime."

She gave an example of an older woman, accompanied by her grandchildren, who is knocked down and has her purse stolen by a young man. She said restorative justice would first attend to the needs of the person who was harmed—the grandmother and grandkids—before turning attention to the young man who stole the purse.

Davis understands that this may sound impractical to people raised under a retributive model of justice, but she has proof that it works. In her hometown of Oakland, Calif., the Cole Middle School Pilot Project was one of the first projects undertaken by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, the nonprofit Davis co-founded. She said when the school began using restorative justice practices, suspension rates were reduced by 87 percent, violence was eliminated and teacher attrition was reduced. Additionally, reading rates and test scores increased dramatically.

"Kids would ask for the opportunity to talk through their differences," she said. "Students began to feel seen and heard, which improved their sense of belonging."

Underlying all societal problems, Davis believes, are the "twin traumas" of America: slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples.

"Our whole culture has been prisonized, with the rise of the prison-industrial complex," she said. "We've criminalized ordinary childhood behavior—such as getting into a milk fight or defacing property—and kids are getting arrested because of it instead of trying to repair the harm."

Davis believes this would not happen if the nation had not been born in slavery, which is why she emphasizes that students need to learn about the history of slavery, genocide and the civil rights movement—not in an attempt to shame the nation, but as a way to restore it.

"All of this has to come out or we will never be able to get healthy," Davis said. 

By Andrew Wilson