Conflicts of Interest: Restorative Justice Comes to UCI



Recently, colleges and universities across the country have been making an increasing effort to address racial slurs, homophobic slander and other insults that, while technically permissible under the First Amendment, are destructive to campus climate. Pioneering this campaign, the UC Office of the President hosted a training seminar in January on restorative justice in which UC staff members from all 10 campuses would attempt to mediate conflicts that may fall outside university policies.


The workshop discussed how to act as facilitators in the restorative justice process and used role-playing scenarios to demonstrate the kinds of issues relevant to the process. In one scenario, a drunk student pulled a fire alarm as a prank and, when confronted by his neighbor, insulted his neighbor’s gay orientation.


In essence, restorative justice theory involves mediating a peaceful dialogue between all people or parties involved in the conflict rather than simply focusing on punishing the offender. The concept, according to John Braithwaite’s book “Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation,” traces its roots to a variety of ancient cultures and philosophies, including Arabs, Greeks, Buddhists and Indian Hindus as far back as 6,000 BC.


Some of the customs involved have survived to the present day, including the Palestinian tradition of the Sulha.


“The first step […] is that the offender’s family approaches a number of different individuals respected as peacemakers and begs for their help,” Braithwaite reports in his book.


In this case, a member of the victim’s family had been murdered by the offender. The peacemakers act as the mediators between the victim(s) and the wrongdoer(s).  The process of settling the issue may take over a year and can involve compensation to the victim.


The Palestinain Sulha concludes with a ceremony in which knots are tied in a white flag to represent a peace that cannot be unraveled.


Arguably the most moving part of this process occurs in its final stages when the victim family and the offender’s family invite each other to share bitter coffee and meals.


“Rather than assigning a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’ by bringing together victims and offenders … where they can discuss the issue, offenders are encouraged to be empathetic towards their victims and understand how they have harmed them, and victims are encouraged to be sympathetic toward the offender as well, to understand perhaps how their situation contributed to the offense,” said Sarah Smith, a Ph.D. student at UCI.


The restorative justice process has also been integrated into several aspects of U.S. legal policies.


Smith has studied several types of restorative justice approaches present in the United States, and he has participated in a program for juvenile offenders and their parents.


“[The offenders were] involved in shoplifting, assault and felony thefts,” said Smith.


“[Subsequently, they enrolled in] a victim impact program course which the offenders attended with their parents and then, if necessary, a victim-offender mediation.


It boasts an incredibly low recidivism rate (4 percent over a two-year period) compared to similar juveniles whose cases were adjudicated through the traditional court process.”


Indeed, the prevalence, functionality and effectiveness of restorative justice throughout history supports the success of the program Smith observed.


Nevertheless, the process of restorative justice is not perfect.  One of the most obvious drawbacks is that the process requires all parties involved in the conflict to be open to discussion. Where restorative justice programs are mandatory court orders, however, the process can be obstructed by a reluctant participant and the conflict may take far longer to resolve.


Another less obvious but possibly more serious problem is the risk that the victims or offender may attempt to manipulate the other parties, including the mediator.


“For instance, consider a case of abuse, where the abuser is manipulative or vengeful,” Smith said.


“This person may be able to manipulate the victim and facilitator in ways that re-victimize the victim rather than restore him or her.”


In order to resist manipulation and facilitate a peaceful resolution more effectively, UC schools have begun holding training workshops to prepare Student Conduct officers for using this process, such as the one that took place in January.  Edgar Dormitorio, the director of UCI’s Student Conduct Office, participated in the workshop although his interest in restorative justice began long before January.

“Sometimes we deal with issues in which a person who may be harmed might not feel as if the issue had been totally resolved for them, because they’re left out of the [student conduct process],” Smith said. “But with restorative justice […] the idea is that they would be involved with that process. So it is one of the things that I thought would be great for the university to have.”


In the facilitated discussion following the fire alarm training incident, the involved parties convened and made suggestions to the accused to come up with solutions.


“If that were to go through a student conduct process, we may consider addressing the alcohol issue, and also addressing the statements made, but it doesn’t necessarily involve those people who were hurt or harmed by the situation,” Dormitorio said.


Restorative justice may be slow in coming to UCI, but certain aspects of it are already being incorporated into Student Conduct procedures.


“Right now we do use restorative practices in asking perpetrators or people respondents to be reflective about their actions, to find ways in which they can repair the harm,” Dormitorio said.


“[But not] every case might be suitable for restorative justice, and I think we’re going to start slow at UCI, hopefully get some focus train on being facilitators […] My goal is that we can have a strong program in a few years.”