Criminal justice leaders tout the benefits of ‘restorative justice’ at NCCU forum
Durham police chief, sheriff, and D.A. agree that county’s practices and experience can be a model for systemic reform
Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews teared up as she sat in a close circle of people in the Great Hall of North Carolina Central University’s Law School.
“When I was much younger I was the victim of a very brutal rape,” she told the assembled law students. “And I had kind of struggled with that, obviously. Because I never reported it. Because I kind of felt like I deserved it. I put myself in a situation and I was made to feel that I deserved it.”
Like many people who have been sexually assaulted, Andrews didn’t feel the traditional justice system was on her side. Had she reported it, had she been believed, had her assailant been arrested, tried and convicted, it would have done little to address the lifelong harm — something she still struggles with today.
How she frames that harm now goes beyond the role of the law or courts, she said. Instead, Andrews — joined by Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry and Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead — came to NCCU to talk about an increasingly prevalent approach to crime known as “restorative justice.”
As NCCU law students in Professor Scott Holmes’s course learn, restorative justice is deeply rooted in indigenous traditions of conflict resolution. It goes beyond crime and punishment to center the needs and concerns of those harmed, including the wider community. It allows those who have done harm to take responsibility and — where possible — make restitution and repair that harm.
It may sound like crunchy granola liberal philosophy to some people. Its practitioners say they know that. But in Durham it has taken root and, according to law enforcement, the DA and the courts, is making a difference.
Deberry’s office and Andrews’ police force both make referrals to Restorative Justice Durham — a nonprofit, volunteer-led effort that has since 2017 worked with the traditional justice system to help do the healing work — work often outside the expertise of police, attorneys and the courts.
“We have a very small toolkit as prosecutors,” Deberry said. “What we have is incarceration and continued punishment.”
Through the partnership with Restorative Justice Durham, Deberry said, her office can help people who need more complete resolution than that.
“Victims are like, ‘That’s great that you sent somebody to prison, I guess,’” Deberry said. “‘But I still don’t understand what happened to me. I don’t understand why this person picked me.’ Because it’s often somebody they knew and care about. And someone broke that trust. So for us, in my office, when we send cases to RJ Durham — which has been a tremendous partner — we do send high risk cases there. Because that is where the transformative human work can happen. And we’ve learned we have to take a step back from that.”
“Shifting our mindset”
Aviance Brown, an attorney and leadership team member with Restorative Justice Durham, said it’s important to understand the restorative process doesn’t replace prosecution.
“Naturally, for anybody who hears from the DA if you participate in this we may reduce your charges, that’s going to act as the carrot,” Brown said. “But they have to do the work.”
Sheriff Birkhead agreed. “This has got to be genuine,” he said. “It can’t be part of getting out of something. When we talk about using this process, we recognize that it has to be authentic.”
Toward that end, Brown said, her group stresses the work can’t happen without the consent and involvement of those harmed and those who exacted the harm. It often will also involve friends, family and members of the wider community. In cases where those who are harmed might not feel able to participate in the process directly, they can designate surrogates.
When a case is referred to Brown’s group — from small misdemeanors up to murder — they assess the case and whether it’s a good fit for their process. If it is, they follow four steps.
In an initial pre-conference, facilitators meet with everyone separately. They explain the process and let each person decide if they want to continue.
After that, they hold a “conference circle,” in which facilitators guide everyone involved through some core questions: What happened and how? What were they thinking and feeling at the time? How have they thought about it and what have they felt since? Who has been affected and how? What can now be done to make things as right as possible?
From there, the group will craft a “repair agreement,” with obligations to be fulfilled by those who have caused the harm. Finally, a closing circle allows all the participants to determine if those obligations have been fulfilled and whether justice has truly been achieved.
Brown said she has seen the process not only repair harm but also help people welcome those who have caused that harm back into their families — even if they go to prison. Repairing those broken places in a community — between individuals, families, friends and neighborhoods — isn’t the purview of police and courts, Brown said. In non-white communities, where generations of racist use of police powers and the legal system has left lingering distrust of institutions, this is particularly important.
The district attorney, police chief and sheriff — all Black — agreed.
“We do know there is a tremendous need for law enforcement to be different, to no longer view their role as that ‘warrior’ as we’ve all heard but more of the guardian,” Andrews said. “Shifting our mindset to how we keep people from re-offending.”
Deberry, who has led the way on a number of mold-breaking reforms since taking office in 2019, said Restorative Justice Durham isn’t just a good partner but an example.
“What the restorative model has shown us is we have other options if we choose to use them,” she said.
“The third rail of the criminal justice system”
While Deberry, Andrews and Birkhead all agreed restorative justice can be a transformative partner for law enforcement, there was less agreement on how much it can or should be used in cases of police use of force and particularly police shootings.
While each said they were open to exploring how the practice could be used in those situations, they were frank about its challenges.
Birkhead said he would welcome it as the justice system continues to undergo reforms.
“It is possible,” Birkhead said. “Because we have a victim. We have either a real wrong or a perceived wrong. Nonetheless, we have a victim. So I think certainly it could be part of the process. Unfortunately, it’s not currently [used] that I’m aware of.”
“It would be tough,” Andrews said. “But I think that it’s something that could be accomplished. It might not be successful in every matter and in every case. It’s figuring out the how, if I’m being very transparent.”
Deberry called use of force cases “the third rail of the criminal justice system.” “As the person who makes the decision on officer involved shootings…I want to start by saying I am as big a cheerleader for RJ as a prosecutor can be,” Deberry said. “I believe in it. I don’t know if it can work in every case.”
In police use of force cases there are varying interpretations of who is the victim, Deberry said. Restorative justice processes are also confidential, Deberry said — information revealed in them isn’t used in prosecutions. That presents a particular challenge, she said.
“As the DA I would have to say, ‘Y’all tell the truth and I’m not going to do nothing,’” Deberry said. “And then — and this is purely hypothetical — the officer gets up and says, ‘Absolutely, I beat his ass.’ Am I not going to prosecute that? What is my responsibility to the community after having heard that? And what is the community’s response?”
Brown said she agreed restorative justice is complicated in such cases, but not impossible.
“I would never say never to anything, as long as we think through the parameters and have these conversations upfront,” Brown said. “I don’t think RJ is the very first thing we need to be discussing in a police misconduct case. There’s a lot that could go wrong and a lot that likely will be done up front on behalf of the community.”
“Once some of the passion dies down, outside of the heat of that moment, I think it could be involved and ask the community how does it think and feel about how it should be used, in parallel with prosecution,” Brown said.
Durham — and HBCUs — are different
Hearing law enforcement and the Durham DA embrace restorative justice — even in very difficult cases — was heartening, Brown said. Hearing them do so at an event at NCCU’s law school also felt like a full-circle moment for her.
Brown graduated from NCCU’s law school in 2017. There, in the very same class that hosted last week’s event, she was introduced to restorative justice. It’s often said that “Durham is different” because restorative justice has flourished there while it’s struggled to take hold in other communities in North Carolina.
NCCU — an HBCU with a strong community and service lens — is a prime reason why, Brown said.
“Central and HBCUs definitely hold a special place in my heart,” Brown said. “Central has a special reputation for producing practice-ready attorneys and also putting people on the bench. If you look across the state, a lot of judges went to Central. So why not start here with restorative justice, where we have that strong community service tradition?”
Dillon Sharpe, one of the law students responsible for last week’s event, agreed NCCU’s history and culture make it an ideal home for new and transformative ideas about justice.
“I do believe this is the place for conversations about community, about justice, about what those things mean and how we can look beyond our traditional understandings of how justice works to how it should work to make outcomes so much better,” Sharpe said.
“I do think that is part of our mission and it’s a part of what we do as we do justice work,” Sharpe said. “We can talk about prosecution, we can talk about punishment, but we also have to talk about community and about healing. That conversation starts here in our classes and we hopefully we take it into our work.”
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