“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
After months of headlines about the recent street robberies on Capitol Hill, Andrea Brenneke of Compassionate Seattle is hoping to change how justice is viewed in Seattle’s East Precinct. Rather than turning to strictly punitive measures, Brenneke and the SPD are now beginning a pilot program of Mayor McGinn’s Restorative Justice Initiative in the precinct, which constitutes the Capitol Hill, First Hill, and Central District neighborhoods, and aims to combat crime by bridging the gap between offenders and victims.
“In my work, I’ve recognized how important our criminal justice and civil justice system is, but I’ve also recognized how many people don’t get their needs met in those systems, and how sometimes those systems don’t meet the needs of the people who go through them,” Brenneke said. “While I want to keep those systems as strong and vigorous as I can, part of me started looking for another way of engaging conflict, a way that meets all needs of people in the community and helps us come together better.”
Brenneke hasn’t been alone in trying to find another way of responding to crime. In recent years, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for an alternative to how we approach criminal justice. The reason why lies in one simple fact: the United States currently imprisons more of its populace than any other nation on the planet. In 2013, the International Centre for Prison Studies found that the U.S. boasts the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 residents at 716 while Russia currently has 477 per 100,000. Since 1980, the prison population of the United States has quadrupled.
According to Brenneke, this surge in criminal incarceration is indicative of how the modern world has forgotten one of the most basic principles of community: how to live with one another.
“I think in the post-Enlightenment world, we’ve become very rights-focused, and so I think we’ve lost some traditions like [restorative justice] in our communities,” Brenneke said.
Despite left-leaning attitudes, Seattle and Capitol Hill aren’t exceptions to these trends. Seattle’s East Precinct has famously had one of the highest concentrations of incarceration in the city, and because of this, Brenneke has now begun the process of instituting the pilot program of City of Seattle Restorative Justice Initiative here.
“What we’re going to do to start is take a look at our East Precinct and look to create a community-police partnership where police are engaged with the incident, and rather than send it through [the criminal justice system], there would be an option to engage in a restorative justice process where the police and the community could engage it in another way,” Brenneke said. “There would still be accountability, but this would just be another way of engaging accountability.”
If both the perpetrator and the victim agree to the restorative practice rather than a criminal prosecution, the two will then engage in mediation to help address the needs of both parties with the end goal of addressing the cause of the crime and its impact on the victim and the community. A perpetrator may then possibly provide whatever form of restitution that the parties agree upon, take part in some form of community service, or simply offer an apology.
One of the larger goals of this process will be to help keep young offenders between the ages of 18-24 from continuing a lifelong pattern of criminal behavior, and as such, that age group will be the primary focus of the pilot program. If the perpetrators can be steered away from crime before becoming another penal statistic, Brenneke believes that future generations will see a drastic dip in criminal activity.
However, Brenneke was quick to emphasize that the restorative justice program will be an entirely voluntary one, and that it will not be replacing the criminal justice system within the East Precinct by any means.
“If a victim doesn’t want to participate, we’re not going to re-traumatize them and make them do it,” Brenneke said. “There are a lot of protections in place to make sure that if someone doesn’t elect to do a restorative practice, that there will still be a criminal prosecution. It will just be a parallel track, not the only track.”
The end result, Brenneke hopes, will be stronger bonds within the community rather than larger fractures, and presenting would-be criminals with a choice to turn away from crime altogether.
“It would be a dialogue where all parties can come together and understand what was done, and the significance and the meaning of that,” Brenneke said. “What the harm was, and what the underlying meaning is behind that act. It would be a practice where we can learn from conflict instead of being torn apart.”