When you think about public health what comes to mind?
Maybe it is a hospital, or doctors. Maybe it has to do with medicine, policy or maybe even environmental sustainability. For me, it’s restorative justice (RJ).
Many people tend to think about public health in terms of physical or environmental factors, but often forget that health is also significantly impacted by whether an individual possesses or lacks social connectedness, or, what some consider, social capital. Think about it, at what point in your life have you felt at your best or happiest? Chances are, it was not at a moment when you were engaged with others rather than isolated.
Numerous studies have shown that social connectedness plays a huge role in physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A study in the American Association for the Advancement of Science demonstrated that lack of social connectedness contributes more to poor health than high blood pressure, or even smoking. Lack of connectedness also causes anxiety, depression and antisocial behavior, and it increases crime. One study found, “Social connectedness considerably reduces murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and motor vehicle thefts…. Social connectedness especially reduces murders of adolescents and young adults during gang and drug activity.”
Unfortunately, an article in Stanford Medicine suggests that, “Social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate in the US…the modal number of close others Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to zero…suggest[ing] that one in four people we meet may have no one they call a close friend!” Yikes!
But what’s restorative justice have to do with it?
Originating in indigenous communities, RJ believes when a crime occurs, the social fabric of a community is torn. Thus, it seeks to repair the fabric by increasing social connectedness. One way it does this is through community conferencing, a circle-based process in which stakeholders (community members, victim/survivor(s), and offender(s)) discuss what happened, how it affected them, and assemble a repair agreement for the offender(s) to complete. Community conferencing allows stakeholders to be heard, victims to be supported, offender(s) to be encouraged to take adequate responsibility for their actions.
While RJ has been regarded by some as a reactive approach to crime, it is increasingly understood as a component of restorative practices which seek to build resilient communities. Practices also include community-building circles which provide a space for communities to forge relationships and address mutual concerns.
One organization implementing these strategies to reduce crime and increase public health is the Restorative Justice Project. RJP has successfully been engaged in community conferencing since 2005.
I arrived at RJP as a new intern a few weeks ago. As a Grinnell College student from Kansas, I only had a vague understanding of RJ. At Grinnell, I volunteer as a sexual assault advocate and teach incarcerated men at a correctional facility largely populated by sex offenders. In these roles, I became increasingly frustrated with the isolation the people I work with experience. I found it increasingly hard to cope with the idea that punishment, especially severe punishment, is an effective response to harm. I witnessed this approach isolate sexual assault victims who did not want to pursue the criminal justice system in response to harm, and I witnessed the physical and mental isolation of those who have harmed, stifle their ability to be held truly accountable and be seen as holistic human beings.
So, even though I was, frankly, still skeptical of RJ, I took a leap of faith and made my way to Maine.
In just a short time, I have found RJ to be powerful and effective. It has changed my life, and I look forward to working more with RJP towards a more socially connected future.
If we need to have strong social connections to reduce crime and increase health, and RJ succeeds in forging connectedness, it seems natural that we should support RJ in our communities.
Cinthia Romo, is a summer 2019 intern at RJP. A permanent resident of Kansas City, Kansas and third year student at Grinnell College in Iowa, Cinthia was drawn to restorative justice and RJP through her volunteer teaching job at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, IA. She is a Sociology and French double major who aspires to obtain a PhD in Sociology and become a professor. Furthermore, with the help of her college advisors and RJP staff, she is currently working as a Mellon Mays Fellow grantee to research restorative justice practices. Her experiences throughout high school and college have fueled her thirst for social justice and change, and she hopes to incorporate her experiences at RJP and restorative practices into her future career.
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