We Are No Longer Alone: My Introduction to Restorative Justice

In November 2014, I began an exciting tenure as executive director for the Center for Community Peacemaking (CCP) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. CCP has a very active restorative justice program addressing the harm for crime victims, especially crimes committed by youth.  As I began there, I realized that I’d already had an experience of restorative justice as an eight year-old child, unrefined as it was. That experience and the conciliatory attitude of my parents no doubt played a crucial role in my subsequent life path.  The following reflection appeared in CCP’s December newsletter, Making Things Right.

It was a mild Sunday night in September. I was an adventurous eight year-old, expecting to go to school the next day. Instead, I was awakened by shouts of panic from my parents.

An eerie glow and strange roar filled the bedroom windows. Our barn was engulfed in
flames. It would be my first experience with restorative justice.

That night two young men had been out driving around; their car ran out of gas more than a mile away. After walking for some time, one of them, Myrick,* tried to siphon gas from the tank of our family’s utility truck parked in the barn. In order to see, he used a cigarette lighter. The predictable result exploded in his face and lit up the hay stacked nearby. While he was able to run for safety, our barn was soon a pile of charred timber and melted aluminum roofing.  It soon became clear that Myrick was responsible for our barn burning down. Yet my parents made an unusual request to the district attorney: Could Myrick receive a minimal sentence in exchange for help rebuilding?

Restorative justice began in the 1970s as far as Western civilization is concerned as a compliment or alternative to traditional punitive sentencing. The core process, often called “victim offender conferencing,” uses this facilitated encounter to address the harm and needs that a crime victim might have and allow the offender(s) to take responsibility for their actions. But in the early 1980s when this happened, still almost no one practiced this direct form of justice and conflict resolution in the US outside traditional indigenous forums.

My parents’ request for Myrick’s work on the farm was partially granted. He was released the next year and began helping amidst the barn ruins. Our eyes were opened to the different world in which he lived, one of acute dysfunction, abuse and poverty. He was polite if also visibly uncomfortable around us. But he seemed happy to do something to right the wrong he’d committed.

At that time, Pennsylvania had no victim-offender conferencing, no skilled coordinators, advocates or facilitators to advise them on alternatives to putting Myrick behind bars. As a result, my parents struggled with a legal system that embraced expensive and punitive solutions. After Myrick was released, they also struggled to work out a clear agreement for him to repair the harm he’d caused, something a more formalized victim-offender process would have supported.

Now in 2014, it is clear. Lancaster County and South Central Pennsylvania has a unique and powerful resource for restorative justice. While most Pennsylvania counties still lack any resources to “make things right” directly between people like my parents and Myrick, the CCP has a host of volunteers and staff with a range of expertise in restorative justice. In the last ten years alone CCP has handled more than five thousand cases.

The fact that the Center for Peacemaking not only exists but thrives is testament to people who support the organization financially and as volunteers. They understand that our community’s wholeness—and our personal wholeness—is dependent on a direct, empowered participation in addressing grievances. CCP’s success also owes much to the leadership of its board of directors and former director Jon Singer, for creating an efficient organization through which so many criminal cases have been transformed into mutual understanding.

And we have still much to learn. How do we expand restorative justice processes beyond the youth cases that form the bulk of our work? How do we better account for the trauma, bullying and violence that are operative if also hidden in so many situations? How do we
address the context of poverty, discrimination and abuse at the root of so much crime?

We can’t solve every problem, but one thing is for sure. Unlike my parents, who struggled to advocate alternatives to the punishment meted out to Myrick, we are no longer alone. A movement of restorative justice—and a stellar twenty-year track record right here in Lancaster—now supports anyone seeking to take hold of the justice owed to them, to make right relationships and to understand, “why?”

I am humbled and excited to step into and nurture this life-changing work. It meets a need not met anywhere else in our society. But unlike my parents, I’m not alone. And together we can co-create a different world than the fiery one in which I awoke the night our barn burned down.

Christopher Fitz
Executive Director
Center for Community Peacemaking

* The name has been changed.

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