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UW's Restorative Justice program seeks to right wrongs by bringing people together

Masked participants seated in a large circle in a UW classroom.
Courtesy of Connor Novotny
A conference meeting hosted by UW's Restorative Justice program.

When we talk about justice, we're usually talking about punishment — you break the law, you go to jail. But Connor Novotny, and other proponents of restorative justice, take a broader view.

"When we're focusing on a more restorative approach, what we think about is: who's been impacted by harms when they've taken place? And what's it going to take in order to make things as right as possible?" Novotny said.

Novotny runs UW's Restorative Justice (RJ) program, putting this concept into practice for student code of conduct violations, such as property damage. That means working with both the person responsible for the harm and the person or people impacted by the harm.

Novotny first helps evaluate code of conduct violations to see if they're a good fit for the process. A good candidate will be someone who admits to their wrongdoing and shows an interest in turning things around.

"Accepting responsibility and showing a strong desire to repair harm is kind of a baseline for determining whether or not they're going to be a good fit for that for the RJ process," Novotny said.

Restorative justice facilitators then meet separately with the responsible and the impacted parties to engage in a "storytelling" process. This involves each party sharing their account of the incident, the factors that preceded it and the consequences that followed.

"We then move on to say: What's it going to take in your mind to repair some of these relationships to the extent possible? Or what's it going to take to help foster restoration in the community?" Novotny said.

The next stage involves bringing both parties together for a conference, where, alongside facilitators, community members and personal support, they can work out a plan to right the wrongs and keep whatever it was from happening again.

"It's a chance for everybody in those situations to move beyond their roles, or preconceived notions of one another, and humanize each other," Novotny said.

Together, they draft a restoration agreement, detailing everything the responsible party must do before they can consider the process complete. Often that involves addressing the personal or specific factors that originally led the responsible party astray. But it also means addressing the specific consequences of their actions.

"With those agreements, we really try to make them focused on that situation," Novotny said. "So if (property damage) did happen in a building here on campus, per se, how can that responsible party volunteer something to that space in order to do that repair?"

It's also helpful to play to the responsible party's strengths. Novotny said one such student took it upon themself to use their skills as an artist to repair the space they damaged.

"We were looking at the amount of hours with all the agreement items, and we were like, 'Okay, this is probably slightly more than we kind of expect for this kind of case,'" Novotny said. "And the responsible party, that student, said, 'Well, the other stuff is important and I also like doing art. It's something that I'm passionate about. So doing more than is asked of me for harm repair, as a piece of art, is not a problem.'"

The program has seen a lot of success working with students who have broken the student code of conduct. So Novotny is now working with the county government to bring that restorative justice approach to actual crimes.

Novotny is starting to work with select individuals accused of minor crimes, seeking to restore them and the community — using storytelling, conferences and restoration agreements in lieu of fines, probation or jail time.

Albany County signed an agreement with the program last year and the first restorative justice conferences are taking place now. So far, the program is limited to helping students appearing before circuit court, but Novotny is hoping it can expand to help those appearing before other local courts too.

The Restorative Justice program is distinct from — but could dovetail with — the diversion program being launched by Albany County. That program seeks to help defendants avoid jail time, or even a record, by establishing alternative ways for the accused to right their wrongs while getting their lives back on track.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.

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