The field of Conflict Analysis and Resolution has continued to develop new innovative theories and methodologies for addressing all types of conflict; whether they be protracted violence between Israel and Palestine, rising instances of extremist terrorist attacks across Europe and in the Middle East, ongoing efforts to maintain stability across poverty-stricken African countries and beyond—the list goes on. Here at home in the U.S., the political divide deepens as our President, Donald Trump, continues to use divisive and dangerous rhetoric; politicians have bunkered-in on their respective sides of the aisle, hate-crimes have increased, horrific mass shootings force people across the nation to live in fear of sending their children to school or attending public events and celebrating in collective spaces, and racial divides, inequality, and injustice still pervade every news channel you turn on each day.
America is in need of reconciliation in so many forms. We are in need of a peace movement capable of addressing some of these tensions that continue to simmer across our nation, and as people of all shapes, sizes, colors, beliefs, and orientations continue to have conflict with one another, it is incumbent upon practitioners and students of CAR to imagine innovative ways of addressing these ongoing issues before they turn into large-scale disruptions of the peace. The restorative justice movement has become a popularly debated topic in much of the world, including the United States, as communities consider how to address myriad different conflicts in a multitude of cultural settings and geographical locations. As a student in the field as well as a firm believer in restorative principles and the power of restorative justice as a framework for peace, I believe that it is time we consider tackling a problem that has garnered much-divided attention in recent decades.
We live in the era of mass incarceration, and America’s prison industrial complex continues to rage on—“in the last twenty years, the prison population in the United States has soared from 300,000 to over 2 million”—we have created an uncontrollable source of systemic injustice and oppression which affects people of color disproportionately, leaves crimes unresolved, and creates ongoing tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This same system subjects millions of citizens to structural, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence as they navigate years of their lives isolated from their communities, subjected to inhumane conditions, and living in environments of normalized violence and conflict. Sadly the violence doesn’t stop once someone is released from prison, it only seems to spread. With national recidivism rates hovering around 70%, men, women, and juveniles are being released ill-equipped to reintegrate into their communities, facing unbelievable adversity, feeling stigmatized and doomed to failure, and ultimately perpetuating cycles of harm that continue to have adverse effects on their communities. We should all agree that it is time to consider addressing crime, punishment, and reintegration in new forms that protect and create community as opposed to destroying it.
By The Numbers
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners”, and according to Michelle Alexander (2012), the U.S. incarcerates 750 people per 100,000. The U.S. Department of Justice cites that every single week in our nation more than 10,000 prisoners are released from state and federal prisons, “equating to more than 650,000 ex-prisoners annually reintegrating into society”. The problem with this statement is how we define the word “reintegrate”. With a near 70% recidivism rate within the first three years after release, it is hard to take seriously the concept of reintegration as the DOJ considers it. Reintegration implies a return to normalcy as an inclusive member of society—not one who is met with fear and animosity, legally discriminated against, and ill-equipped to achieve even the most basic of Maslow’s needs like food and shelter, by legal means. With this in mind, it is more likely that nearly 200,000 ex-prisoners “successfully” reintegrate out of prisons each year, and around 450,000 return to prisons after release, having been ill-prepared to transition back into society, now returning to the ongoing struggle with the violence and oppression that is inherent in incarceration.
Although a complicated statistic to wrap one’s head around, according to Dr. Michael Pittaro, a professor at the American Military University, it is estimated that nine million offenders return to prison annually. What this means is that the vicious cycle of recidivism rages on, and some offenders are so ill-equipped when stepping beyond the opened prison and jail doors, that they return multiple times each year, spiking the recidivism statistics and showing very plainly that reform is mandatory if we wish to reduce crime, addiction, and harm in our communities.
These numbers are incredibly alarming. When we consider where reconciliation may prove most useful in our country, we would be remiss to ignore the magnitude of harm that American criminal justice is perpetuating. When we consider everyone who has been jailed and imprisoned in the last twenty years, for instance, we are in the tens-of-millions easily. Then, we take into account the victims of those crimes, the family members of the victims, the witnesses of violent crimes, the communities affected by high levels of crime, and the family members of those imprisoned and we enter into a realm where the numbers are truly unquantifiable. If we also consider the disproportionate effect that the system is having on minorities in our country, and the fact that African-American males have a 1-in-3 likelihood of being incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, compared with 1-in-17 for Caucasian males, we begin to uncover even more layers as to the need to create systems of reconciliation which deal specifically with crime and released prisoners in our country. From a numbers perspective, it is hard to imagine any other area of conflict in this nation where reconciliation has the potential to reach its healing hands out to more people, and create more sustained change, than with criminal justice.
The System of Criminal Justice as a Blockade to Reconciliation
The current processes that dominate the way we address crime and harm in this country are very much the antithesis of reconciliation. Though the process claims to be about uncovering the truth of conflict, the set-up from arrest to imprisonment is very much about creating competing narratives that force participants/stakeholders to protect, more than anything, self-interests—especially on the part of the defendant. Individuals accused of crimes avoid truth and responsibility from the very beginning; they have a right to remain silent so that they may formulate a narrative with an attorney, and find ways to procedurally dismantle the accusations against them, discredit the victim, and deny the harm committed. However, it is not just the accused perpetrator who is misguided by the process of “truth-seeking”, even victims are put into spaces where they may need to exaggerate, recall inaccurate information under the duress of testimony, or even lie so that they may receive something resembling justice because if the defendant is found not guilty, the system essentially says the accused harm didn’t happen. Everyone involved is forced to choose a side and the entire process is most often adversarial and ugly.
There is also the matter of the history of imprisonment in the U.S.; “Not only does the prison have a history, that history is deeply problematic, inextricably linked, as it is in the United States at least, with racism and the legacy of slavery”. When considering these factors and many others—like the fact that the system is retributive in nature and designed to assign guilt and exact vengeance for victims and communities based on that guilt—we should conclude that reconciliation is not possible within the framework of the current system, something will need to change in order to find peace through justice in this country.
This view of criminal justice as a barrier to reconciliation is very much supported by proponents of the restorative justice framework; RJ supporters agree that the state of things currently reinforce societal demands for retribution and revenge, and that resources are focused on punishment rather than repair; “After conviction, the criminal justice system puts more resources into punishment…in 2001, about $400 million was spent on compensating harmed people. Contrast this with the estimated $38 billion spent on incarcerating people. Simply seeking to punish people and lock them away doesn’t create repair, it only satisfies the temporary desire for retribution, but as discussed, this process leads to cycles of harm as offenders who go away are not welcomed back into communities after imprisonment, and victims of crime do not receive near adequate services directly after crime, or after offenders are punished. Sadly, the process of punishment as it currently stands seems to be very harmful to all and places unnecessary burdens on individuals beyond just the offenders; often times the separation of prisoners from their families puts significant stress on relationships, and that stress leads to the possibility for more dysfunction—especially for children of incarcerated parents, who statistically are much more likely to have direct experience with the system, and harm their community during adolescence and into adulthood.
The process of punishment and incarceration is a dangerous one for many reasons. Distrust is created in almost all parties who go through the process, and for offenders it is often counter-productive in that it instills feelings and beliefs that are more likely to block reentry when sentences have been completed.
A hostile, anti-social attitude among offenders may as a result be entrenched by retributive, blaming models of punishment enacted within contemporary socio-political and economic climates. If so, then vengeance as a risk reduction strategy may worsen the propensity for offending via its impact on the psychology of offenders, and so will depend for its effectiveness entirely and increasingly on monitoring and maintaining power.
The current practices create what Lacey and Pickard (2015) dubbed as “bona fide out-groups”, and currently only increase the divides between “us” and “them”.
Restorative justice and reconciliation are closely related processes. Both are based on dialogue, truth-telling, reparation, accountability, and including the voices of everyone involved so that healing may take place. RJ approaches can often be seen as smaller-scale processes towards this aim, whereas reconciliation processes can be small-scale undertakings, but also exist as extremely large scale projects aimed at transforming communities or even entire societies. It is within this recognition where I must diverge in my belief of the RJ framework for this concept. I wholeheartedly believe that RJ can adequately address new harms that take place in our communities now, but in order to address the violence and overuse of incarceration for the millions of people who have already been affected by the prison industrial complex, a societal level reconciliation is needed.
The Possible Benefits of Reconciliation
American culture lacks forgiveness, in-part due to the gladiatorial way that we handle conflict. Millions of offenders, perhaps tens-of-millions, are living in a state of non-forgiveness for the harms that they perpetrated. Forgiveness is a rare process for victims to undertake because the system is not designed to promote it, and as a result of this, Americans at-large are also unforgiving of criminals, felons, offenders, prisoners—the labels are endless. Individuals being released from prisons and jails are typically not welcomed back into their communities in a constructive way, but instead battle the stigmas that accompany committing crimes. There is a plethora of research that discusses the ways in which individuals with criminal records are discriminated against both formally and informally. There is also a large amount of research about the obstacles that inmates face upon reentering society after their prison terms. In a report titled “The Social Reintegration of Offenders and Crime Prevention”, Dr. Curt T. Griffiths and his colleagues list some challenges that offenders face: “skills deficits that make it difficult for them to compete and succeed in the community: poor inter-personal skills, low levels of formal education, illiteracy or innumeracy, poor cognitive or emotional functioning…they may have lost their livelihood, their personal belongings, their ability to maintain housing for themselves and their family”. Dr. Michael Pittaro points out; “most ex-prisoners returning to these communities will face uncertainty over their future and animosity from a predominantly unforgiving society, as well as a multitude of personal, social, and legal barriers that prevent them from leading law-abiding lives”. By combining the thoughts of these two authors it is clear to see how the unforgiving culture in our country is very unwelcoming to ex-inmates, and actually causes more harm than anything.
With these commonly known barriers in mind, perhaps the most significant benefit of reconciling former and releasing prisoners with their communities is creating a culture of forgiveness that helps break down the walls that hold these beliefs and stereotypes in. It is time to create honest open dialogue and exchange that serves to humanize perpetrators of crime and harm who have paid the debt assigned to them by the courts, and now seek opportunities to live decent lives. The issue of blame vs. forgiveness was well discussed by Nicola Lacey and Hanna Pickard (2015) in their essay titled; To Blame or Forgive? Reconciling Punishment and Forgiveness in Criminal Justice. For them, “mercy is a possible sentiment only for those with power and authority, exercised necessarily de haut en bas…unlike mercy, forgiveness can in theory be exercised de bas en haut, from powerless victim to powerful perpetrator”. Lacey and Pickard (2015), go on to say;
“Once the sentence is determined, there is nothing more mercy can do. In contrast, there is room for an attitude of forgiveness to shape the nature and execution of punishment—and it is aftermath—in prison and in the community. We hold offenders responsible and punish appropriately in relation to the offence, without vengeance and affective blame, but with forgiveness”
Of course this excerpt speaks to injecting forgiveness into the system (before and during incarceration) specifically, but it also has implications as to how we can welcome people home after punishment, with forgiveness in our hearts. A society which accepts that punishment has been served and maintains the knowledge that further animosity and ostracization is not a constructive attitude for preventing harm, but will likely further violence to offenders and communities, stands a much better chance at reducing recidivism and new crimes alike. Lacey and Pickard (2015) go on to say that, “the possibility of reparation and rehabilitation can then in principle proceed in tandem with punishment—if, that is, it is reconceived as inflicted not out of vengeance and affective blame, but with forgiveness” (pg. 7). A society which holds people accountable, helps them confront the harmful choices they made, and prepares them for meaningful roles within a community through compassion and education is the culture that reconciliation can aid in creating.
We have an accurate account of how not following the reconciliation model is failing. Recidivism remains at an extremely high rate, and in their report, Griffiths et al. (2007) list a handful of offender reentry programs that attempted to use research and evidenced-based practices to curb recidivism in their respective areas with only minimal reductions, or no reduction in recidivism at all. The components that all the listed programs were missing were reconciliatory in principle: more extensive community involvement, dialogue, creating opportunities for forgiveness and reparation, and establishing constructive relationships. Instead, the offender reentry programs were based on supervision and skill-building—which have their merits, but all the skills in the world can’t battle the stigma that follows offenders and the lack of trust and forgiveness that prevents them from obtaining some of their basic human needs in a positive, legal, and acceptable way.
Reconciliation processes serve to create relationships, forgiveness, reparation, opportunity, and community through truth-telling and dialogue. It is important to remember that dialogue includes more than one voice, and in this instance would need to include many, many voices. “Therapeutic intervention and dialog that gives voice and affords genuine interest in their perspectives to all parties affected by a problem can lead the way toward reconciliation, forgiveness, and the healing of trauma-affected persons and communities”. Processes would need to be set up that brought large numbers of offenders, community members, victims, and facilitators together in order to create these opportunities for dialogue and voice to happen. In the vision that I propose, this would need to be done in a manner similar to TRC’s so that large numbers of people can be affected as opposed to doing restorative style circles with small groups who may internalize the experience and keep it within their close circles and relationships. In this vein, Kalayjian & Paloutizan (2009) make some more very valid points; “Human existence is dependent on interaction of and with others and cannot be sustained without group effort. Awareness of self emerges in the context of relationships with others and cannot happen elsewhere”. Group dialogue is perhaps the most important part of reconciliation processes that could be created for individuals who have already been deemed guilty and gone through the process of retributive justice; “Within dialogue, it is the humanization of the other that allows the fractured past to emerge into a different vision of the future. Reconciliation work is deeply rooted around issues of identity and the emergence of new identities developed through the process”.
Methodology for Reconciliation of America’s Great “Other”
The focus for this kind of work must be forgiveness, and chosen methodologies must be those which promote the discovery of such emotions that may lead to forgiveness. Two methods of working towards systemic change through dialogue are listed by Kalayjian & Paloutizan (2009); “community building and social action, a process that attempts to bring large numbers of people together around community issues needing attention and mobilization; and conflict resolution and peace-building processes where group members in conflicted societies come together to look at new ways to approach the conflict and deal with the substantive and the psychological issues embedded in the situation”. Utilizing either, or a combination of both of these processes, we can begin to work towards forgiveness and the creation of new narratives through dialogue. It really is imperative that we find ways for affected parties to have their voices heard in compassionate environments where judgment is set aside, and empathic listening is conducted. There is work for everyone involved to engage in, and the only way to discover that work is by listening to what people’s needs are, and bringing people to the table who can testify to the systemic issues that perpetuate cycles of harm that communities are facing.
Megan C. Price has written rather extensively about the “Elicitive-Centered Insight Approach” to truth and reconciliation, and what implications this could have in the U.S. Although mostly about how to effectively approach the racial divides, gaps, and injustices that exist in our country, this approach is highly intelligent and worthy of consideration as we consider reconciling with former prisoners and those being released into our communities every day. For a process to be elicitive it needs to, “draw on the personal stories of conflict participants and the unique dynamics that pattern the contexts in which those stories occur”. Advocates for a new process can encourage an elicitive process by making spaces for communities to think about approaching a problem by hearing—not just listening, but hearing—the stories of stakeholders, and then giving genuine consideration to the numerous factors and the history that go into the meanings of our stories before deciding how to move forward. “In most cases, we find that meanings in our stories are driven by fear, and as such are mistaken and misplaced. As a result, when these meanings are elicited, we get insights that help us build new structures and relationships that achieve our goals better than broken and conflicted structures do”.
The Insight Approach to conflict is “a theory of conflict that focuses on the roles of individual perspectives and thought patterns in driving the decisions that lead to the engagement or disengagement of conflict”. This method fits quite well into such processes as being discussed here. Not only does it have the potential to get to the perspectives of offenders regarding what led them to committing crimes, but it also serves to uncover the decisions and perspectives of community members and victims regarding the lack of a willingness to forgive, wipe the slate clean after punishment, and disengage in the behaviors that create an out-group out of offenders and push them to the fringe of society—often with little choice but to consider a life of crime to support their basic needs and desires. Combining the elicitive elements into the Insight Approach is important because elicitive processes “draw on the stories and experiences of people as a first step towards change…it begins with the individuals who make up the social fabric that has been strained…solutions grow out of the process itself”.
One of the essential factors to remember in implementing a process like this is what we are not up against. The biggest barrier to processes of reconciliation in divided communities seems to be the issue of how to obtain justice for victims, and the concept of which wrong-doers deserve amnesty, and for what crimes. Amnesty is not an issue that needs to be considered as we discuss the reconciliation of people already deemed guilty and having been punished accordingly, whether that punishment was viewed as right, fair, excessive, or even extreme. There is no amnesty to be had, only forgiveness through dialogue and insight. Llewellyn and Philpott (2014) discussed the issue of amnesty as a barrier to reconciliation extensively and with the knowledge that it is unnecessary to consider how to approach this barrier, it seems some of the work is already done. It is worth recognizing that we are starting the process one step closer to Galtung’s vision of positive peace where physical violence is not the only thing remedied but eliminating structural and cultural violence also become essential elements of reconciliation.
The overarching theme presented in this essay is the power of dialogue and inclusive stakeholder involvement in any process aimed at reconciling American communities in the age of mass incarceration. Nearly every author cited has written about the necessity of inclusion in dialogue if progress is to be made. In restorative justice processes, the same truth holds evident—victim, offender, and community all have a stake in the process because they were all affected by the instance of harm that brought them together. The same must be true for large scale processes of reconciliation that hope to encourage forgiveness for those who have paid a debt to society for disrupting the social order, contract, and fabric that threads us all together.
This process has elements of many other processes, but it is quite unique in concept. Two necessary objectives of reconciliation are discovering the truth and then figuring out how to address that truth. There may be elements of truth-telling in the processes I am proposing, but for the most part the truth is known and punishment for the harm has been served, also eliminating the need for debate around amnesty. The goal then becomes to focus solely on creating constructive dialogue, which “exposes the public to accounts of the experiences of ‘the other’ (and) offers the potential for the development of empathy across the sectarian divide. In order for reconciliation to be a realistic outcome, everyone must be a part of the process”. This opportunity to develop empathy may allow for other truths to come out which are vital in achieving the kind of reconciliation being proposed. Offenders may be able to own up to truths that were denied during the original adversarial trial process, and may also get to disclose the truth, or the stories, of the structural and perhaps physical violence that they experienced through imprisonment and release. This exchange and dialogue may shed light on the effects that continue to remain mostly invisible to society, hopefully prompting a call for a new system—one that restores justice, promotes forgiveness, and provides mercy.
In another essay by Price (2018) she gives incredibly valuable insight into what I consider to be the heart of the issue that reconciliation can work towards resolving;
Tunnel vision, for example, describes the way that threat focuses our attention exclusively on one central object, for example what we believe to be threatening, or our goal to stop it. It blocks our ability to notice or pay attention to neighboring information that might tell us about the adequacy of our thinking (pp. 3-4).
I believe what a reconciliation process aimed at reintegrating offenders back into society should hope to address is the tunnel vision that has become so normal to many Americans—the tunnel vision that creates enemy-images of offenders who have already served their punishments, the same vision that denies them opportunities to make a genuine effort at becoming a part of the community after imprisonment, and denies them access to basic needs and rights. That tunnel vision destroys the opportunities for constructive dialogue and forgiveness, which is why reconciliation processes should be officially sanctioned, supported, and facilitated in order to achieve a positive peace in our country by transforming conflict that creates serious levels of violence on the full spectrum—physical, structural, cultural, and beyond. Through the insight approach to facilitated dialogues, communities may become curious enough to engage in new processes and find forgiveness in order to welcome people who have paid their debt ascribed by the courts and are now just searching for opportunities to live a good life.
“Reconciliation in divided societies, like conflict itself, is fundamentally about relationships, perhaps especially an encounter between the shattered past and the envisioned future. Reconciliation, from the Latin root conciliates, which means drawing together a council, is a sustained process that, at its best, rekindles community and restores harmony where violent conflict has set people against each other. Reconciliation requires intentionality and perhaps even generosity”.
Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
Alexander, Michelle. 2013. Reckoning With Violence. The New York Times. March 3, 2019. http://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/opinion/violence-criminal-justice.html.
Allen, Amy. Justice and Reconciliation: The Death of Prison? Human Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 2007), p. 312. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27642805. Retrieved 2/13/19.
Beitsch, Rebecca. 2016. Finding Responsibility, Reconciliation After a Crime. Stateline article. July 21, 2016.
Grace, L. B. 2007. Transforming Grief into Hope. Michigan Citizen. Retrieved from http://searc-proquest-com.mutex.gmu.edu/docview/368136405?accountid=14541.
Griffiths, C. Yvon, D. & Murdoch, D. 2007. The Social Reintegration of Offenders and Crime Prevention. The International Center for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy (ICCLR). April 2007. Retrieved from www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/scl-rntgrtn/index-en.aspx.
Jung, Courtney. 2018. Reconciliation: six reasons to worry. Journey of Global Ethics, 14:2. Pp. 252-265. DOI: 10.1080/17449626.2018.1507000.
Kalayjian, A. Paloutizan, R. 2009. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Psychological Pathways to Conflict Transformation and Peace Building. Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg London New York. 2009.
Lacey, N. Pickard, H. 2015. To Blame or to Forgive? Reconciling Punishment and Forgiveness in Criminal Justice. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. Dec. 2015; 35(4):665-696. DOI: 10.1093/ojls/ggv012.
Llewellyn, J. and Philpott, D. 2014. Restorative Justice, Reconciliation, and Peacebuilding. Oxford Scholarship Online. April 2014. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199364862.001.0001.
Pittaro, M. 2018. Why Ex-Prisoners Struggle to Successfully Reintegrate into Society. Article-In Public Safety. Retrieved from https://inpublicsafety.com/2018/05/why-ex-prisoners-struggle-to-successf....
Pfaff, J. (2017). Locked In: the true causes of mass incarceration—and how to achieve real reform. New York, NY: Basic Books. pg. 1.
Price, Megan. 2019. Reconfiguring Traditional Prescriptive Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation Processes: Adapting the Elicitive-Centered Insight Approach or the United States. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330322255. 11 January, 2019.
Price, Megan. 2018. Change through Curiosity in the Insight Approach to Conflict. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330322357. 11 January, 2019.
Walker, L. (2013). Restorative Justice: Definition and Purpose. In K. van Wormer and L. Walker (Ed.), Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications (pp.3-13). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Yardley, E. Wilson, D. Kemp, D. & Brookes, M. 2015. Narrative Beyond Prison Gates: Contradiction, Complexity, and Reconciliation. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. Vol. 59(2) 159-179. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X13507042.
Zehr, H. (2015). Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times (Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.
 Pfaff, J. (2017). Locked In: the true causes of mass incarceration—and how to achieve real reform. New York, NY: Basic Books. pg. 1.
 Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York,NY: The New Press.
 I only say “successfully” because the word success is very open to interpretation.
 Allen, Amy (pg. 314)
 Zehr, H. (2015). Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times (Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press
 Walker, L. (2013). Restorative Justice: Definition and Purpose. In K. van Wormer and L. Walker (Ed.), Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications (pp.3-13). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
 Lacey & Pickard, pg. 11
 Ibid, 11
 Pittaro, pg. 2
 Lacey & Pickard, pg. 5
 ibid, pg. 5
 Griffiths et al. (pp. 27-31)
 Kalayjian & Paloutizan (editors), 2009
 Pg. 89
 Pg. 274
 Pg. 272
 Price, 2014, p. 196
 Ibid, pg. 212
 Ibid, pg. 196
 Price, 2014, pg. 199
 Llewellyn and Philpott, 2014, pg. 5
 Price, 2014, pg. 207
 Price, 2018, pp. 3-4
 Kalayjian & Paloutizan, pg. 252