Chesa Boudin’s Plan for a Survivor-Centered Approach to Harm, Using a Restorative Justice Program to End the Cycle of Incarceration through Healing and Accountability
Chesa Boudin will create a ground-breaking restorative justice program in the District Attorney’s Office: Every victim who wants to participate in restorative justice will have the right to do so, dramatically expanding the menu of options to help them heal while holding people who commit crimes accountable. The process can be a mediated, victim-offender dialogue, or a circle that involves the victim, the person who committed crime, their families, and members of the community--all people who are impacted by the actions of the responsible party. Processes are built according to the needs of the victim, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach focused solely on punishment without any regard to healing and accountability.
This program is critical to Boudin’s plan to create a safer and more just San Francisco. The leading restorative justice program in the country, in New York City, is used by 90% of survivors when they are given the choice. Victims choose this process because it works.
Currently, San Francisco uses restorative justice practices for a small number of juvenile cases, but there is no true restorative justice program available in the adult criminal courts. We should lead the nation in these victim-centered, low-cost practices to healing while reducing our addiction to draconian punishments.
We Need Change
A survivor-centered response to crime is essential to a safe and just society. We incarcerate record numbers of people and destroy entire communities while failing to help, and actively harming, the people we claim to care most about. The current system doesn’t work for anyone--victims, people who commit crimes, or their communities. We need a better way. Chesa Boudin’s restorative justice program--the most visionary and comprehensive of any DA in the United States--is a crucial step in that direction.
Our current criminal justice system is a system of mass incarceration. We do an excellent job punishing people, but we fail victims, precisely who the system should honor and protect. There are three main reasons why the current system does not and cannot work for victims:
- Most crime, especially violent crime, isn’t reported. When it is, it usually does not result in arrest. And most arrests don’t result in conviction. The vast majority of people who are harmed by crime are ignored by the current system, offered no help to heal and no assurance that they or someone else won’t be harmed again.
- Even when victims are engaged by the system, they are harmed by it. They are re-traumatized through an adversarial process in which their truth is denied. They have no control over the process, and they aren’t able to meaningfully tell their story.
- In those rare cases where a person who harms someone else is convicted, they are merely punished rather than held accountable. They aren’t rehabilitated, and as a result, two thirds of the time they go on to harm someone else.
Punishment, Not Accountability
In the current system, a person who commits a serious crime--if the crime is reported and the person is caught and convicted--is branded a felon and sentenced to prison. They are punished, but they aren’t held accountable. They don’t have to consider how their actions affected the victim, the victim’s family, their own family, or the community. They are separated from the people in their lives who could help hold them accountable and contribute to their own healing, responsibility, and rehabilitation. And they don’t take any steps to make the victim whole.
We say we are tough on crime, but this approach actually lets people who commit crimes off easy. It doesn’t demand that they come face to face with the people they have harmed and address their needs. They “do time” in jail or prison but don’t have to grapple with the harm they have caused.
Chesa Boudin’s restorative justice program takes a different approach. It requires that people who commit crimes do the following:
- Take responsibility -- People who cause harm must acknowledge what they did and own their responsibility for the choices they made.
- Acknowledge the harm -- People who commit crimes must acknowledge the harm they have done. That means facing the people whose lives they have changed. It means telling victims that what happened was not their fault.
- Express genuine remorse -- People who cause harm must acknowledge that what they did was wrong and that they owe a debt that they are committed to repay. When offenders engage this step, they are driven by intrinsic motivation (an internal moral compass), rather than extrinsic motivation (the threat of punishment). This is far more likely to produce positive behavior in the future.
- Work to repair the harm -- People who cause harm must work to repair the harm, and that work must be guided by the victim. Other than financial restitution, the current system does nothing to facilitate this critical process. Sometimes this means the person who committed the crime must commit to obtaining and retaining employment, obtaining a GED, completing community service somewhere meaningful to the harmed party, paying restitution, or speaking to youth to help them avoid a similar path. Whatever the specific steps, the critical piece is that steps are taken and they are guided by the person who was harmed.
- No more-- People who cause harm must commit to no longer causing similar harm. This is consistently among the most important desires sought by harmed parties. It requires addressing underlying causes of crime, such as housing, drug use, and economic instability. And it helps the person who committed crime avoid the shame that often leads to violence in the first place. This is essential to reducing the incredibly high recidivism rates produced by the current system, which make us all less safe.
How It Works:
- District Attorney’s Office Uses Experts to Implement Restorative Justice
The District Attorney’s Office will partner with the leading experts in the restorative justice field from organizations including Common Justice and Impact Justice to design and implement the Restorative Justice Program and to train DA staff. We will consider harms that are specific to San Francisco and how the program can do what the current system fails to: reduce those harms, foster healing for victims, and hold people who cause harm accountable while helping them become people who no longer harm others.
- Initiating the Process
When a victim chooses the Restorative Justice Program, program staff notify the assigned Assistant District Attorney, who contacts the defense attorney. If the defendant is also willing to engage in the program, the case is referred to a program mediator. The mediator meets separately with the victim and the person who committed the crime and explains the process and expectations. The parties determine who else may need to be involved in the process--such as family members of either party or community members--in order to facilitate true healing and accountability.
- Moving Forward
Once the parties have been engaged and preliminary discussions have taken place, participants work together to build a process focused on healing for the victim and accountability for the responsible party, using the proven five-step accountability framework.
The participants develop remedial measures, guided by the victim’s needs and desires, that will further the victim’s healing, the community’s healing, and the responsible party’s growth and accountability.
The mediator makes regular reports to the court and all parties while the process is ongoing. If the mediator and parties agree the process was successful, the charges in certain cases will be dismissed. For some charges, successful completion may result in a reduction of the charges or in a plea agreement that takes into account everything achieved by the process. Something short of total success may also result in charge reduction or sentence mitigation. Failure will result in re-initiation of the charges.
- Awareness and Outreach -- Help Victims Ignored by the Current System
We’ll Implement a city-wide awareness campaign--focusing on communities most impacted by crime--so that we can begin to address the vast majority of crimes that are not even reported. This campaign will enable us to reach people who are currently excluded from the criminal justice system and thus suffer alone, with no help becoming whole and no accountability for the person who harmed them. We will work with community groups who have contact with victims of crime so that victims who don’t feel safe coming forward (perhaps because they do not want contact with the police) are not left with no remedy for what happened to them.
Program staff will meet with every victim we are able to reach--whether they come to us through our awareness campaign, a community organization, or the police--to carefully explain what the program offers and to give them a choice, and a voice, in their healing.
The District Attorney’s Office has a vital role in creating a safe and just San Francisco. Restorative justice, by centering survivors and holding people who cause harm accountable, is essential to the fulfillment of that mission. We can’t punish our way past crime; it hasn’t worked yet, and it won’t. We need new, proven strategies to change the status quo; to help the people who are harmed but don’t come forward, people our system completely disregards. We need to give all victims of crime a voice, a way to let them guide their healing and restoration rather than being used and discarded by a process whose sole goal is punishment. And we need to hold people who commit crime accountable instead of taking the easy route: dumping them into a system where two thirds of the time they end up committing another crime.
San Francisco should build on the immense success of similar programs across the country, where 90% of victims use restorative justice when it’s available, to rethink our approach to crime in our city. Healing and accountability result in safety and justice. We can lead on this issue, and with Chesa Boudin as District Attorney, we will.