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Making the Justice System More Just

by Lindsay Burke

prison

If you have ever seen the TV show Law & Order, you will have heard these words of introduction, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

But that is only part of the picture; there are stories slipping through the cracks. There are stories of the victim or the epilogue, but what happens to the offender after the sentence is handed down? In the U.S., these are usually unsatisfying stories with little closure and rarely a happy ending, but a few in the Dayton area are working to rewrite their endings.

Russel Morgan, retired mediator for the Montgomery County Adult Probation Department, and Michelle Zaremba, director of the Dayton Mediation Center, are two such people. They’ve strived for years for their voices to be heard as an alternative in our struggling justice system. Morgan observed years ago that “…both offenders and victims have needs that are not being met by the criminal justice system as it currently operates.”

This observation is mirrored in the results our justice system produces. The United States makes up 4.7 percent of the global population, yet houses fully 25 percent of the world’s inmates. After being incarcerated, 40 percent of those people reoffend.

Our system is retributive in nature, meaning that offenses are categorized and given prescribed punishments, including fines, probation and jail. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” as the old adage goes. But we are missing the mark, treating the symptom but not the cause.

That is where mediation comes in. The goal of mediation is to get the victim and offender talking. It gives both parties the opportunity to “gain new information about their situation, identify options and resources, and gain greater clarity about their conflict.” In Morgan’s experience as mediator, he found offenders were able to take responsibility for their actions by looking into the face of the person they harmed. They were able to express remorse and work with the victim to repay the damage done.

He goes on to say, “Victims have been unanimous in stating that meeting with the offender greatly facilitated the healing process and allowed them to begin to develop a sense of closure to the trauma they experienced.”

Mediation is not a new idea, but its implementation in the court system in Dayton has gained increasing attention for its effectiveness. While only a small percentage of overall cases become a part of the mediation process, the Dayton Mediation Center has seen staggering results. In addition to saving money for the judicial system (e.g., the cost to incarcerate a juvenile is around $250 a day while mediation is about $150 for the entire case), the long-term benefits of mediation are undeniable. “Recidivism” is a term which means the rate of reoffense over time, and it is used to gauge the effectiveness of punishment. Adult recidivism ranges between 40 and 70 percent depending on the type of crime, and juvenile averages sit consistently around 40 percent. In juvenile cases handled by the Dayton Mediation Center, those rates fall to between 4 and 5 percent.

Adult data takes more time to collect, but so far, results are looking similarly encouraging. This is due to the belief of Michelle Zaremba and the Dayton Mediation Center, that “getting to the root of conflict is more important than finding a punishment or issuing a sentence.”

Zaremba’s experience is that in the vast majority of cases, participants come to a solution and leave feeling respected, even if they came in “hating each others’ guts.”

As we concluded our interview, Russell Morgan became quiet, then said the message that he wanted to leave was this: “The justice system would be more effective if it could be humanized, incorporating the basic tenants of the restorative justice program.”

Mediation is becoming more recognized as a practice, but the volume of cases is seemingly infinite. Those who are committed to its implementation continue to advocate for victims’ restoration and the offenders’ rehabilitation, in spite of the rising tide of need.

Morgan smiled and recounted a story he had undoubtedly told dozens of times. “A man stood on the beach as thousands of starfish washed onto shore. He feverishly went about the work of tossing them back into the ocean one at a time, when his friend pointed out that he couldn’t possibly save all of them, and indeed his efforts couldn’t possibly make a difference. The man tossed a starfish into the waves saying, ‘I made a difference to that one.’”

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