Throughout my research for the Criminal Justice Resource Center, I’ve encountered many different types of organizations, like public schools, farms, community organizations, and Catholic diocese, that work in the field of reentry. Of the various kinds of organizations that provide assistance to justice involved individuals who are returning to their communities, I was most surprised to see the presence of correctional offices in this work.
Most reentry councils or programs need to have a good relationship with the local sheriff’s office in order to enter correctional facilities, but some reentry programs are actually run by the county’s correctional services. For example, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MDPSCS) provides what they call “Rehabilitation” services for incarcerated individuals before their release. Their website is primarily dedicated to providing information on their restorative justice program, Public Safety Works.
As an advocate for restorative justice on Duke’s campus, this program immediately caught my eye. I have not yet spoken to Maryland officials about PSW, so I am not an expert on how it works, but I do have some qualms about it. The high level explanation of PSW is that incarcerated individuals are given jobs, such as farming and service dog training, with community organizations to complete service work. The goal of this work is to develop social and job-related skills for justice involved individuals, while allowing them to give back to the communities they may have harmed.
There is room for critique and commentary about the efficacy of this practice of restorative justice, but that aspect of PSW is not where I believe the main issue lies. My question is, how can correctional services claim to be practicing restorative justice when they continue to cause harm?
A key tenet of conflict resolution with restorative justice is a meaningful apology, and consistent action to mend the relationship after the apology. An apology means nothing if a perpetrator does not continue to prove, through conscious actions, that they have learned from their errors. There is no justice in RJ until a harm-doer ceases the action that causes harm.
This concept is where the hypocrisy lies in the PWS program. Yes, MDPSCS is providing incarcerated individuals with the opportunity to develop hard and soft skills for the job market, but aren’t correctional facilities responsible for taking away economic opportunity in the first place? If individuals had not been incarcerated and marked as “criminals” from the start, those working in reentry would not need to spend so much time and effort trying to find jobs.
Correctional services and those involved in prosecuting and incarcerating people cannot promote RJ practices in “rehabilitation” while continuing to lock people up. We cannot pick and choose when to use RJ. It is not a nice-sounding practice to hide behind, but a comprehensive replacement for the damaging criminal justice system we have now.
I am not condemning this specific RJ-based program or calling for its end. I am calling for correctional facilities and law enforcement to own up to the harm they cause, and not try to excuse it by implementing RJ where it’s convenient for them.
Restorative justice seeks to achieve true justice for all victims of harm. If incarcerated individuals are being asked to repent for the harm they caused, so should those who incarcerated them.