Conversation with Thom Allena
About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. For their May 8, 2018 dialog they invited Thom Allena to talk about his work in getting justice out of courthouses and into neighborhoods. Thom is a community and organizational psychologist who applies creative approaches to respond to crime, violence and group conflict. In Thom’s community justice work, citizens are invited to play active rather than passive roles in determining the shape of justice and become more directly involved in redressing the quality of life issues that are breached by crime.
Thom Allena is a community and organizational psychologist who for nearly thirty-five years has worked in the fields of community and restorative justice, applying creative approaches to respond to crime, violence and group conflict. In Thom’s community justice work, citizens are invited to play active rather than passive roles in determining the shape of justice and become more directly involved in redressing the quality of life issues that are breached by crime.
Maggie: We’re pleased today to be joined by Thom Allena. Thom is a Community and Organizational Psychologist who for nearly 35 years has worked in the field of community and restorative justice, applying creative approaches to respond to crime, violence, and group conflict.
Peter: Let me just say why it’s exciting to have Thom part of this conversation and I probably maybe am nine, 10 years into … Since first being familiar with the restorative idea and it so aligns with what we’re doing in building community. It is such a beautiful practice. We live in such a punitive, retributive culture, which seems to be building steam as if when something goes wrong, our first question, “Whose fault was it and what are we going to do with them?”
I’ve always known those questions didn’t take us anywhere even though they’re in some way satisfying and then when I discovered the restorative world that Thom has helped invent and had it applied in such practical ways. Thom, I just want to thank you for joining us and maybe you could give us a context for people that aren’t familiar with the restorative thinking and get us started and help us know what the playing field or the container that we’re sitting in with you is right now.
Thom: Thank you, Peter and good morning, everybody, or good afternoon wherever you are. Let me backtrack a little bit on the restorative framework. There’s a larger umbrella, I think, that’s probably relevant to many of you on the call. That restorative justice, I think, is deeply related to and it’s called community justice. When we think about community justice, we think about community safety, community well-being, and that community in life depends on the community’s capacity or to engage in collective action in three ways, as far as I’m concerned: Socialization, informal social control, and external resource leveraging.
A central feature of socialization and that informal control is what the criminologists might call shame. There’s an Australian criminologist by the name of Braithwaite who has determined that there are two types of shame and this is where the restorative framework begins to enter the picture. He first calls disintegrative or stigmatizing shame is where shame is not … You don’t simply shame the act but you also shame the person. The second type of social shame he calls reintegrative shame that features the expression of rebuke and community disapproval followed by gestures of re-acceptance back into the community as a norm and as law abiding citizens.
Disintegrative shame by contrast divides the community by creating a class of outcasts. Now, in this country we know this stigmatizing shame pretty well. I mean it’s a lot of what our criminal justice system is predicated upon.
Enter this idea of reintegrative shame in through a concept called restorative justice, which I’m assuming, many of you on this call have either practiced, have heard about, have read about, it’s gotten fairly well integrated over the last 30, 40 years. We now see it not just in our justice systems but we see it in our schools, in our institutions. Where things to separate from traditional justice is that a restorative view, [inaudible 00:05:31] crime, delinquencies, social violations as not just a violation against the state, rather it’s a violation of relationship in one’s community. That accountability is not just the breaking the law, it’s rather for the harm associated with your actions.
We’re turning the lens around on this one and we’re beginning to see that harm is more important than the actual law itself and the focus of a lot of reparative or restorative work is to repair that harm through this process. You situate a lot of this work, not just inside our criminal justice systems, but you can situate it in communities. I’ll get more into that as we go along with concepts like reparative panels and community accountability boards, restorative justice circles.
These are all models, but the basic framework of restorative justice is grounded in community justice. When we think about community justice, back to that concept again, community justice is really looking at the obstacles that get in the way of community well-being and that there’s a shared responsibility in that model between the state, if you will, the government, and the community. We both have roles in that. I think we can get more into what a restorative practice or restorative justice practice actually looks like as the conversation unfolds.
Peter:That’s great. I’m interested in when you said there’s a obligation or a role for the community to play. There’s something required of us as citizens, neighbors, could you talk a little bit more about what that is? Mostly, we’ve outsourced it to the justice system, to the law.
Thom: Yeah, and the basic framework that comes to us through the original work in this country of Howard Zehr. He talks about violations create harm, harm creates obligations, and the process through which you do that is through community engagement. You’re asking a completely different set of questions than everything we learned on TV or in our own lives about the criminal justice system, on Law and Order or whatever show we’re attached to.
Rather than asking the traditional questions of who did it, are they guilty, and if they are, what’s the punishment, we’re asking a different set of questions. Who’s been harmed? How have they been harmed? Whose obligation is it to repair that harm? The inquiry shifts away from a fact finding and the medium through which the information comes into the system is through narrative and story.
Peter: Would you say that then I as a citizen, if I’m in some way been harmed, I’m obligated to participate in repairing that harm, even though I wasn’t the cause of it?
Thom: There’s always a voluntary nature to participating and by the way, on the part of both the offender and the victim, as well as the community. These are the three main stakeholders in the restorative justice framework. If you can imagine three concentric circles and where they interact is that place where victims, offenders, and communities all have a shared responsibility. I wouldn’t call it an obligation always, but there’s always choice in this,
Peter: Imagine this one, that if we move justice back to neighborhoods and the community, imagine a community currency. If the offender and victim, each receive “a voucher” that could be purchased, they could purchase a community justice process would in place of the criminal justice process that could only be purchased and the money normally spent on incarceration, both had to agree with it, had to agree to participate.
The money spent on a concept like incarceration could be retained in the community to address community well being, safety issues, and those issues are determined by the community. There is an obligation, particularly for offenders to understand how their act or how their behavior affects other people. Then they can’t play a passive role, they work to actively repair it.
Peter: By obligation, I meant a role, that was more accurate.
You’re kind of opening the space for this, if you could talk about something practical, a practice or something would help make, give a clear expression to the basic thinking that you’re describing.
Thom: Sure, I’ll go back to the community of Longmont, Colorado, where they pioneered a concept … Dr. Beverly Title, pioneered a concept called a community justice practice and in that, first and second time juvenile offenders, police could refer a case directly to this restorative justice practice. Then there was always a choice. The youth and their family can choose … What we normally do, lawyer up, go through juvenile court or they could sit with the people that they’ve affected.
One of the practices used in Longmont, now used widely across the world actually, is called a restorative conference or a community group conference, as it was renamed in Longmont. Imagine a youth who, say, shoplifts from Walmart and rather than going through and being referred to juvenile probation is referred to what’s called a community circle, where he sits with his family, with perhaps a store representative, with neighbors, and it’s up to the community to understand what happened, what’s the nature of the harm, how were each person impacted.
Then as a community, they decide, how do we repair harm to the victim, in this case, you might make a case for the fact that Walmart passes those ideas on, or prices on, the cost on to their consumers, there’s an education that goes on. The second sanctioning that the community does is they restore the balance in the community that’s been lost through the act. The third is what’s going to help this young person make different choices in the future.
Again, we’re looking at victim, offender, and community, they’re the main stakeholders in this process.
You’ve been in a fair number of these kinds of circles or decision making groups and you’ve seen the offender, so called, but how would you describe the effect of this process on offender. I think any of us who’ve been observing the criminal justice system of the effects on the offender, which most often is “How can I lead a better life of crime?” but how would you describe the responses that people who are said to be the offender have as a result of this process. What’s it do to them?
Thom: Let’s take the example of what I just gave you about the shoplifting or maybe perhaps it was the graffiti case. More often than not, in the city of Longmont, when we evaluated the outcomes and we evaluated every circle that was done and we asked the victim, we asked the offender, “Was the harm repaired? Was your voice fully heard?” Etcetera, etcetera, and the most common response we heard from the youth, who were the offenders, in the hot seat so to speak, the common response on the backend of a process like that … and it’s not always easy for them …is, “I didn’t know so many people cared about me.” There’s a way in which the youth gets held accountable but in the context of community, they get held in the community. That’s the reintegrative shaming process, versus casting him out, putting them in systems, which we know where that tends to lead to.
That’s the way in which one of the expressions that we’ve heard from low end offenders. Now you have to understand, I have done this work on very high impact crimes, everything from gang shooting death to DWI fatalities, those are different processes, and we can talk more about those and how do you do these with an eye towards community safety, accountability, but we’re redefining accountability in this model.
Accountability in the criminal justice system as far as I’ve seen over the last 40 years is code for punishment. “We’re going to hold you accountable.” This shifts the nature of accountability. When you have to sit and face the people whose lives, particularly in crimes of violence you’ve deeply affected, very, very different concept of accountability, without re-victimizing the victim. That’s a critical part of this work — you don’t put people together if there’s even a remote chance of re-victimizing the individual or the community that’s already been victimized. It’s support and accountability, both, but accountability comes through this reintegrative shaming approach that I’ve discussed.
John: Interesting that you use the word care in terms of the response of people than … in some kind of offense that think … The reason that’s interesting, I think, is because the glue that holds local neighborhoods and communities together is care. It’s caring about each other or the same thing and it’s in community space that care can occur, because it seems to me that once you get to the institution, what you get at best is service, if not recrimination. There’s something really appropriate if what people discover is, “Somebody cares about me,” that is happening, if he says, “Where would I want them to discover that?” I would think the answer is where care is the glue that holds things together and that’s in the local community. It’s just a tremendously appropriate fit.
Thom: It’s a real good insight, John, about the whole role of care as a construct. It’s almost as if in the circle process, it’s the community putting its arms around … Metaphorically, around, not just the offender but the victim as well. It’s the community’s role or obligation, if you will, is to work in concert together. One of the most striking things about the work is first of all, offenders don’t get a sentence, per se, as they get in the retributive system, criminal justice system.
By the way, when you put something into this adversarial process called the criminal justice system, more often than not, care goes out the window. Within the context of the concept of the restorative practice itself, what we’re beginning to see is the decision making by the community is extraordinary. Creative. They have come up with things like I could never thought of. … Me who has worked in the system for 40 years, but the creativity at the level of the community.
A couple of years ago, I had a case in New Mexico of a young man who drove drunk, his girlfriend was drunk, they were fighting outside the car. The young man jumped back in his car, backed up, the girlfriend was hanging onto the side view mirror, fell, the offender drove her over and killed her.
In certain types of cases, we use a process called the sentencing circle and this precedes formal sentencing by the court. Imagine a circle of maybe 30, 35 people, friends, family, the district attorney, the judge, the public defender, the probation person, all sitting in a circle. In that circle, the victim’s mother and father … The young girl who was killed was 16 years old, they said to the offender, … He’s not going to walk out the door after this. He’s going to have some time in a correctional facility.
As part of the plea bargain, he agreed to do this restorative circle, as did the victim’s family. When we got to the part of what to do, before the formal sentencing in the circle that night, inside of a community hall, the community came up with the idea that they said, “We want you, when you go away, to get anger management. We want you to get drug and alcohol treatment, if that’s accessible to you. We want you to get your GED, and by the way, when you return to the community …” and here’s the reintegrative part …They said, “We want you as part of your return to the community, as a way of a rebuilding trust to maintain your victim’s … What we call here in New Mexico, descanso …” A descanso is a roadside marking that are throughout New Mexico, where you remember the actual place where people’s lives are lost. His job was to get all the hypodermic needles and bottles and garbage off of this sacred site, if you will that he was responsible for. It was a way to integrate him back into the community.
As a footnote, he went off to prison. He served over four years, he did everything the community asked him to do and on his return to the community, he gladly took up the task of maintaining his former girlfriend and his victim’s descano.
To me, that’s community wisdom.
Peter: Beautiful. What’s the question? Say more about the harm. I think you kind of added to my thinking a little while ago, John had Anne Livingston who does the VANDU, which is harm reduction for addicts in Vancouver. I asked her the question, “Given all the things you’re describing that the victims, that the addicts do together, what effect does it have on their addiction?” and she said, “That’s not a question I ever ask.” I thought that was the most compassionate answer I could imagine.
She says, “We’re here to help them be constructive …” What’s your take on, if we were to develop something to deal with the addiction epidemic now, how would a restorative process … What might some elements be or how much you think about that kind of the harm it’s causing and who it’s causing to and all that kind of stuff? ‘Cause right now, we’re kind of stuck as even a community as to what to do about that, other than do it for more science which is our first thought.
Thom: I’m not against more science and evidence based practices. I also think that we need to hear stories and this can’t be driven by the justice system. I think it’s slightly insane to think that the justice system’s going to solve the depth of the problems on their own and through an enforcement methodology. One of the best examples I can give which was not in a restorative context but in a community context: one of the clients I worked with, going on about eight or nine years ago was Santa Barbara County, who had a growing meth problem, what we see today in terms of meth, in terms of opioid addictions.
This brought together not just the criminal justice system, and it was driven by neighborhood leaders. They were the advisory committee, but also at the table was public health. I think we need to start thinking like systems here and think across systems, across silos, and the community has to be at the table, because they’re seeing this upfront and personal.
We need systems thinking, to use the overworked term, rather than thinking that any one silo is going to solve these systems issues, but it was striking to me when we had law enforcement, we had public health, we had education systems in here. We need to think more systemically about this and stop thinking that somehow if we just build walls or use enforcement systems, that’s the answer to some of these social ills that we have.
John: I wanted to go back and ask this. In any kind of misdemeanor or felony, it’s the state versus the person and as you indicated earlier, what we’re doing is trying to recognize that the harm is really upon … is not really the state. The harm is local, with real people and real communities. However, in order to get the kind of community decision making powers of these circles, you have to, in a sense, persuade the people in the criminal justice system that this person that is in their jurisdiction ought to be transferred or given an opportunity in this other system.
What I’m interested in is how do you persuade people in the system to relinquish their power of recrimination for a community reconciliation? What sells with system people to get these kinds of initiatives going locally?
Thom: There are a couple of things, John. Thanks for the question, by the way. Cost, for starters.
Let’s do some simple math here. Let’s take five prison bound offenders, say for non-violent crime at a cost of $40,000, rough average, depending upon where you live. California much higher. There’s $200,000 that could be reinvested into the community where those five offenders could be monitored, supervised by local community corrections, as well as the community. That’s one of the things about the restorative work I’ll add is that the offender realizes that it’s just not one probation officer chasing him around. It’s the eyes of this community or they’re in support of him but also to hold him accountable.
That’s one way of thinking about it but not in a retributive way. Reintegration is a huge part of this work itself and I think what you’ve done, John, is you’ve put your finger on, for me, is the greatest problem. How do you get justice systems to let go of power and share it with the community. I think in a concept that I know both you and Peter are very clear about and that’s about leadership, restorative leadership. How do we develop leaders who think a little differently, a little less politically and a little bit more restoratively?
The other thing I would say is I’m frequently asked to train police officers and judges and, quite frankly, I’ve given up on that. I don’t think it’s useful. It’s a bad use of people’s time and money, because it’s going against what they’ve been trained to do. What I will do is put that police officer in a live circle so he or she has the experiential, experience of it, not just me talking about it, but to have that personal experience. The other thing I would say and I’ve certainly seen this a number of times in the legislature with this get tough on crime, three strikes and you’re out, etcetera, etcetera, until it’s the legislator’s nephew who drives drunk and kills somebody. Suddenly everything is changing in that legislator’s mind, so there’s something about personal impact.
Where that personal impact comes through is through these circles and we’re back to the whole concept of understanding the nature of harm and how it affects not just individuals but the whole fabric of communities as well. Usually people involved in something personal, something shifts.
Peter: I’m going to ask Maggie to invite questions…
Ginger: Hi, this is Ginger Swanson from Santa Barbara. Hello, Thom, colleague and friends for who I have so much respect for. I just attended a Humanities in Prison Symposium of that UCSB last week and a half ago. I’m curious if the restorative justice programs are able to be shared across the university campuses.
Thom: Thank you again for that question. You’ve mentioned two institutions here, one the correctional institution, also the university institution. As it turns out there’s a lot of in prison restorative work going on around victim impact panels. That’s a concept that’s being used. There are talking circles that go on frequently in many of the institutions and on the college campus, that’s one of the more interesting places now where the restorative practices are beginning to take root.
A colleague, David Karp, of Skidmore College wrote one of the seminal texts called Restorative Justice in the College Campus. David is doing some extraordinary work, as are a number of other people, on college campuses. Right now, with first amendment rights issues, we need a different way to hear each other, because so much of the college campus is fractured. To me, college campuses are a prime place, academic learning institutions as a way of healing these fissures that we’re seeing in the larger culture right now. Restorative practices has gained great strength on college campuses.
What are some ways that you’re thinking of when you say campuses are fractured?
Thom: Recently, I’ve taken this restorative concept into a major Division One University Athletic Conference. In this conference, between 2016 and 2017, they saw a 137% increase in violations, interpersonal violations, what they call sportsmanship violations. We have introduced to the 12 member universities and the conference this concept of restorative sanctioning. Rather than just using a punitive model of how you punish a coach or a student athlete, whether it’s a fight, a brawl, I mean we’re seeing this. By the way, this is not solely restricted to the athletic fields and the courts. What we’re seeing on college campuses right now, we’re seeing it in the issues of sexual assault, they’re coming out but just the larger fracture on college campuses. One of the initiatives we saw within the context of this athletic conference were five African American, black athletes from one university took a knee during a football game. Now we’ve seen that with the NFL, but there was a lot of fractions between the veterans community, athletic programs.
They began thinking about applying restorative practices to bring these seemingly divergent groups together.
Ron: Hi, this is Ron, Philadelphia area. We’ve been using a First Nation Circle process for restorative justice and I’m curious, in your experience, do you have examples of ways that you’ve been able to celebrate restoration? Any measure of it, when it actually happens as a way of building tradition, narrative, confirmation of the process in the community?
Thom: Thanks for the question about celebrating. I think it’s really important to champion the community for the work that they’re doing. Where I frequently see this is coming through this restorative lens. Philosophically speaking, without getting too deep into this, I think rupture that comes through crime, a rupture we’re seeing socially right now is on a continuum with renewal. You don’t get renewal without some form of rupturing, but even if you look at the etymology of the word collapse, which is typically what happens individually, interpersonally, socially through crime and through epidemics like opioid epidemics, the etymological description of collapse means falling together.
Falling together, so it’s through sometimes through rupture and loss that we lead to renewal or to new beginnings, if you will. I’ve seen this frequently where relationships get built out of these fractures. Victims, the case I just mentioned to you earlier, about the young man who ran over his girlfriend. As a result of that circle, some of the things that came out of that were that the victim’s family began visiting the offender in the institution and actually appeared at his parole hearing to say to the parole board, “We, our community, we personally as the victims would like him back in our community. He’s completed an 18 month therapeutic community program or a treatment program. He not only got his GED, was enrolled was college, ” this is cause for celebration.
I mean the ways in which that we do this, one of the ways that’s embedded in the process itself of a restorative circle, there’s a part of the process we use … I don’t know if you use it there, Ron … called Breaking Bread, where there’s food.
Food is a great healer. It’s a great convener. These every day ways of breaking bread, if you will become the rebirth of relationships. I’ll never forget a case that I had, in fact, the first case, we ever did in the community of Taos where I lived for 15 years, where a single car rollover resulted in a girl being killed, a young girl from the Indian pueblo in Taos. When the police officers spoke in that circle, he looked at the young girl who survived, as well as the two young men and said, “When I came on the scene that night as the first responder, I put my hand on your pulse, to try to get a pulse from you and I couldn’t get one and I thought we had lost you.”
This young 16 year old girl just starts to weep and what did she do at the part of the process called Breaking Bread? First of all, before we broke the circle to do that, she says to the police officer, “I’m not used to police talking to me like that, not in this town.” When we broke the circle for the Breaking Bread ritual, if you will, what does she do, she goes right to the police officer. There’s a re-knitting and a rebuilding of relationships and especially with cops and kids, which are frequently fractured.
Ron: I just appreciate your comments. Having this phone call is a way of celebrating because we’ve been through experiences that are such a blessing to everybody involved in the circle but seem to be private and the blessing doesn’t overflow to enrich the community so often. Just having this phone call is one way of doing that. Thanks.
Peter: Thanks for calling in. Let me read some write in on the chat. There’s two questions. Let me ask them both to you, Thom. One is “What are some of the common mistakes that community makes when they start a restorative justice system?” and the second is “How have religious organizations reacted to the restorative justice concept? Are they generally in favor opposed or not involved?”
Thom: Let me start with the second question first. I mean, most faith communities are very supportive of this and as a matter of fact, if you look at some of the traditions of many faith communities, such as the Mennonites. These are core values, so for most faith communities, this is a concept of justice that resonates with most of their faith community values. It’s never been a hard sell for me in terms of working with faith communities.
I think one of the biggest challenges communities face with this is, one, this takes time and it takes a commitment on the part of the community so it’s not about going through a simple training. What I liked about the Longmont program so much is they built a learning community around this work. All these circles were facilitated by community people, but this requires not just a three day training. This requires you being part of an ongoing learning community where you build capacity in the community to address its own issues involving crime and delinquency.
It’s fascinating to me that my work in Taos started in the opposite direction. It was very difficult to get referrals from juvenile and probation for the property crimes, the graffiti cases, the shoplifting cases. Where we started and I think this has a lot to do with the social trauma of Northern New Mexico and the generational poverty, the addiction issues, but we started with DWI fatalities. Those are the first three or four cases we did. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was the opening where we learned and believe me, we made mistakes. We certainly made mistakes.
As a facilitator, I think rule number one in any level of this restorative work is whatever you do, do not re-victimize the victim through this process. We take great care in our training and developmental work to ensure safety for everybody who’s there but most especially for people who have been victimized, often twice by this point, by the time they get there. They have been victimized by their offender, they’ve been victimized by the criminal justice system in some way, shape or form, and we don’t need to add a third layer of victimization to this. That’s the mistake sometimes that we step into.
Peter: Thank you. One other question is about schools, moving away from the, again, the justice, the … would you say a couple of things about how restorative work is occurred or what the … Who’s convened and what the issue is with bringing it to schools?
Thom: I want to bring in is concept of school to prison pipeline and it’s fairly evident that once a student is expelled or suspended the chances of them getting into the detention or the institutional pipeline go up exponentially. The ways in which we think about discipline in schools is extremely important.
You see a school system like say Oakland California, that has totally embedded or almost totally embedded this restorative idea into their school disciplinary processes. It’s an alternative to suspension and expulsion where you’ve got to understand if I’m acting out in the classroom how my behavior might be affecting the process. Not only will you use this in response to disciplinary actions, but how a teacher might teach in a classroom, what does a restorative classroom actually look like when there’s a rupture in the classroom itself?
A lot of the teachers are using these concepts to build a circle right in the moment and deal with it, rather than sending the youth down to the assistant principal for some kind of sanctions at that point.
Peter: Give us one question a teacher might use in the moment that would be an expression of what you’re talking about.
Thom: One line of inquiry might be, “Let’s try to understand what happened here and who’s being affected and how they’re being affected by this?” Oftentimes, we’ll use and you’ve probably seen it before, we’ll use a talking piece which basically says, “One person speaks at a time and, more importantly, the rest of us are there to listen.” In our culture right now, when I think of the court systems, there’s no listening going on. It’s just people talking at each other, trying to win arguments. It promotes listening and understanding, which I would hope our educational endeavors. Those are a couple of examples on how you might use this in schools.
Peter: That’s great and it’s not just the court system, it’s also the political system that the town meetings, town hearings … Those are all oxymorons the way they’re structured, the idea that’s when there’s a rupture, when harm occurs, right at that spot, you create some circles and say, “Let’s loo …” That’s really fascinating.
Thom: That’s radical, Peter, radical thinking when you get into political systems, yes.
John: Did you ever know a guy named Jerry Miller? Jerome Miller? He was a good friend of ours as well and he said to me one time, he said, “The thing that strikes me is that people in neighborhoods send their children away to us because they have failed as a community. If I was really to reform things,” he said, “What I would do is I would say to the community, I’m giving you back my reformatory money and what you’ve got to do is figure out why it is you create these kids that you send to me, because when I take your kids, what’s happening is you don’t have to change.”
All of that is preliminary to asking when you’ve seen a rather broad circle, you call it a larger circle of people from a neighborhood who are dealing with a kid and maybe they’ve done that several times, a younger person.
Have you seen a change grow into that process that comes through a recognition that another question is not, “How do we deal with this harm?” Another question is, “How did we create this harm?” I would think there might be in some of these processes people who would be in to see this pattern out enough that they would begin to say, “What are we doing to create this problem?” I just wondered do you ever see that happening?
Thom: Absolutely and I think what you’re referencing now is a basic tenet of community justice, John. In this model, the community is responsible for the conditions that give rise to the crime. In other words, there’s a shared responsibility here between our institutions and our communities, but it’s the community’s job is to address the underlying issues that contribute to the, say, institutionalization of these youth, for instance.
Then on the other end, we started doing re-entry circles on some of these high end kids that were going out on murder cases, how they come back into the community. We were doing community circles with 30, 40 people, and ways in which the community says to the youth, and probation’s there, the judge is there, his or her victims are there, and it’s up to the community.
My big bias is … and I’ll put this out there … is institutions and systems can’t reintegrate people. Sorry, any offense to parole people right now. That’s a shared responsibility with the community and one of the more interesting pieces I was involved with, and you see it, say, in the State of Vermont, I learned this up there. This reparative re-entry approach where offenders sit with their community and this is sponsored by the Department of Corrections.
We modeled something here in New Mexico as a pilot off of that with women who were coming out of the women’s institution where they had their own re-entry circle, to deal with the stuff that they’re not going to be talking to parole about like, “How do I keep the drug dealing ex-boyfriend away from me that I was muling for that set me up in the first place?”
Next, “How do I get my kids back from Child Protective Services? How do I get a job? How do I live outside of my family because of the level of addiction there?” This is a way of engaging the community and if you really want to go out in the deep end, look at the work Canada’s doing on a concept called Circles of Support and Accountability where they are reintegrating sex offenders who’ve [inaudible 00:50:54] of institutions back into community using circles and therapeutic work in a collaborative structure with the community.
Peter: We’re kind of near the end here. Those are wonderful thoughts and I … Some of the things you said, Thom, about the difference between reintegrating shame and stigmatizing shame, what comes in mind is how we’re treating the stranger, the immigrants now which is mostly the wrong argument about whether to let them stay or not. I just think the ideas you’re expressing and I love that you really express the philosophy behind them. There’s so many places to take this and I think the political arena is ready to be taken there, too. I can imagine people running campaigns on a restorative basis.
Thom: Let me just say, one of the frontiers right now that I and others are working in, is applying restorative practices inside medical schools and medical communities. Which is a very interesting field. I have a colleague in Australia that’s developed a restorative healthcare system that includes a public hospital, based on this restorative practices now. This is a frontier that I think that levels the playing field and creates voice, respect, acknowledgement, accountability and healing to the vulnerable and close any health equity gaps inside of medical systems.
Peter: John, is there any final thoughts you have, ’cause we do have to bring this to a close in a minute?
John: In a way, it seems to me a lot of your approaches could be understood as ways of engaging people in local places in taking on functions that they might have once had, but they’ve given away the institutions. Much of the work, I think, that we see to be done ahead so the re-functioning, how do we understand this help and security and knowledge are embedded in the community as much as they are in institutions, if not more, and what are the processes that get us out of institutional service into the community’s care. You’re just a wonderful pioneer in doing that.
Thom: Oh, thank you, John. I would not leave out institutions, though, John. I’ll close with that thought. A great example that I have is being called in following a prison riot in which the inmates had burned down half an institution and we did a day and a half restorative circle with central office staff, with every correctional warden from across the state and blew up a critical incident de-briefing. I wouldn’t leave, change out of the institutions themselves ’cause I’ve seen some amazing work that systems have done on this stuff as well to address their own internal issues, which gives way to sharing power with the community as far as I’m concerned.
Peter: That’s a great way to close. Thanks for your generosity and thanks, Thom, for joining us.
Thom: Thank you, Peter.
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