And when do you think it should be utilized over other types of rehabilitation facilities? I'm pretty clear about my position, as I'm a believer in restorative justice principles and rehabilitation even for violent crimes. I also, as I've discussed before, worked in forensic mental health and so I've done rehabilitation work for people who have committed violent crimes and believe and have seen its transformative power.

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused to a or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.

The crime is seen as harming the community and the community must decide what is needed to be done to restore the person to the community. Unlike disintegrative shaming, where people are shuttled off to prison and not seen again (we do this all the time by not allowing people with felony convictions to ever have full citizenship rights and they must always declare it to any future employer, which further makes the integration into society difficult), restorative justice uses shame differently, which allows for it to be tranformed into remorse. Even more so, it allows for victims of a crime a voice in prosecutorial procedure.

But a concept called "restorative justice" considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate. In this country, restorative justice takes a number of forms, but perhaps the most prominent is restorative-justice diversion. There are not many of these programs — a few exist on the margins of the justice system in communities like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. — but, according to a University of Pennsylvania study in 2007, they have been effective at reducing recidivism. Typically, a facilitator meets separately with the accused and the victim, and if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of the adversarial legal system and into a parallel restorative-justice process. All parties — the offender, victim, facilitator and law enforcement — come together in a forum sometimes called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks, one at a time and without interruption, about the crime and its effects, and the participants come to a consensus about how to repair the harm done. link

It was famously used in a murder case to convict Conor McBride and while the outcome wasn't what the family imagined (Conor was sentenced to 20 years)., it was a powerful process nevertheless:

In March the Grosmaires invited me to their home, on Tallahassee's northern fringe. We sat down in their living room, near a modest shrine to Ann: items that represented her at the conference are there, along with her cellphone and a small statue of an angel that Kate splurged for not long after Ann's death that reminds her of Ann.

The Grosmaires said they didn't forgive Conor for his sake but for their own. "Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor," Kate said. "Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don't have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can't forgive, they're stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don't have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation."

So again, given the potential transformative effects of rehabilitation and restoration, what is the function of prison. I find this particular quote compelling as an answer and a revelation:

If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their ostensible purpose as our prisons are, we would shut them down tomorrow. Two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of leaving prison, often with a more serious and violent offense. More than 90 percent of prisoners return to the community within a few years (otherwise our prisons would be even more overcrowded than they already are). That is why it is vitally important how we treat them while they are incarcerated.

We would need to begin by recognizing the difference between punishment and restraint. When people are dangerous to themselves or others, we restrain them – whether they are children or adults. But that is altogether different from gratuitously inflicting pain on them for the sake of revenge or to "teach them a lesson" – for the only lesson learned is to inflict pain on others. People learn by example: Generations of research has shown that the more severely children are punished, the more violent they become, as children and as adults. The same is true of adults, especially those in prison. So the only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent from inflicting harm on themselves or others, while we help them to change their behavior from that pattern to one that is nonviolent and even constructive, so that they can return to the community.

It would be beneficial to every man, woman and child in America, and harmful to no one, if we were to demolish every prison in this country and replace them with locked, safe and secure home-like residential communities – what we might call an anti-prison. Such a community would be devoted to providing every form of therapy its residents needed (substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, medical and dental care) and every form of education for which the residents were motivated and capable (from elementary school to college and graduate school). Getting a college degree while in prison is the only program that has ever been shown to be 100 percent effective for years or decades at a time in preventing recidivism. Prisoners should be treated with exactly the same degree of respect and kindness as we would hope they would show to others after they return to the community. As I said, people learn by example.

I know it is tempting to always find stricter and stricter punishments as an answer but it seems as if it is a social engineering program that has been failing for decades as we keep warehousing people, having the highest incarceration rate in the world and an incarceration rate whose relationship with rises and falls in crime rates are questionable. The first programs usually on the chopping block—seen as soft and not sufficiently suiting our ideas of punishment are rehabilitative programs.

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So I ask you, what do you think the function of prison is? And as a society, what purpose does it serve?

ETA something I linked to in the comments about the use of restorative justice in Norway:

Here's the tough thing about restorative justice: it works, as long as you don't consider retribution to be its own inherent good. Despite the lighter sentences, restorative justice systems seem to reduce crime, reduce the cost of imprisoning criminals, and reduce recidivism. There's no comparative data on which system better satisfies victims, but survivors and family members at the Breivik trial, at least, spent days of court time listening to, crying over, and applauding one another's stories. And this approach isn't just for well-off Scandinavian societies; Saudi Arabia has claimed considerable success applying the restorative models to terrorists and violent extremists.

link

It's worth reading the whole article and thinking what happens in a country other than the US and our emphasis on increasing punishment to resolve social problems and mete out justice. I think as a country, our emphasis on criminal justice in general, is just part of our harsh Darwinian philosophy that has allowed the powerful to dismantle much of our social service sector.