Each month, ToneDen Lunch and Learn brings cutting-edge, educational speakers to the office (along with delicious food). Designed to provoke conversation and company enrichment, this series is always open to new perspectives. Think you'd be a good fit for a future Lunch and Learn? Say hi at email@example.com.
Peter Borenstein is the founder and president of Restorative Justice Fund (RJFund), a justice reform incubator based in Los Angeles. He is the lead attorney with RJFund's flagship program, Lifer Legal, representing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in civil court to recover property (cash and houses) that were stolen from them as a result of their long-term prison sentences. Peter learned about restorative justice while working as an outdoor educator for Outward Bound in Australia, Maine, and New York State and still thoroughly enjoys time spent outside.
ToneDen: What is restorative justice?
Peter Borenstein: When someone commits a crime, that wrongful action disturbs a whole web of relationships, causing harm to many, many more people than just the victim of the crime (if any). Restorative Justice focuses on the harm done to people by people, including the harm caused to the person who commits the crime by her entrance into a system focused on punishment, and to address the needs that arise out of the commission of a crime or wrongful act. By focusing on everyone touched by the crime and the needs that arise from it (which, admittedly, is labor intensive and hard to do well), Restorative Justice moves towards an equitable resolution to the situation that allows everyone to get closure, ensure that the crime never happens again, and hopefully move forward in a positive way.
How were you introduced to the concept?
I was introduced to restorative principles during my time as an outdoor educator. I wrote about it! You can read my RJ origin story here.
Tell us about RJFund. What inspired you to found a justice reform incubator?
After law school, I was hired as a consultant by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office to develop a pre-charge diversion program called the Neighborhood Justice Program, which is an opportunity for low-level, first-time, adult offenders to avoid courts, judges, and lawyers in favor of a community-based alternative based on restorative principles. During the development process, I saw how simple and effective pre-charge diversions were and learned about the inertia in many prosecutors offices to develop them. I started Restorative Justice Fund (RJFund) to help other cities in Los Angeles County incubate their own pre-charge diversions because it's such a good idea and with virtually no downside. There are many ideas like that in criminal justice that are ignored because they are new or untested and seen as a political gamble. Our goal at RJFund is to bring those good, nascent ideas to light and help introduce them into the justice system so that they might gain traction and save time, money, and lives.
There are many ideas ... in criminal justice that are ignored because they are new or untested and seen as a political gamble.
At your Lunch and Learn, you talked about how many ideas about justice lurk in our "lizard brains." What are some of those ingrained beliefs? What do we stand to gain, societally, by reshaping those?
I think the general idea that punishment works as a response to crime is the most lingering "lizard brain" belief. We all grow up in a system where punishment is the logical conclusion to any wrongdoing—if we sneak out, our parents ground us; if we talk out of turn in class, we get detention; if we steal socks, we go to jail; if we hurt someone, we go to prison or worse—and so without any further examination, it makes sense that that's just what happens to people who commit crimes. But even the barest analysis of punishment as an objective of our justice system makes the whole idea unravel, plus it's just the laziest way to deal with people who do something "wrong" by our standards or break a law. Restorative Justice is a promising alternative because it really dives into the nitty gritty of what it means to be in relationship and thereby immediately becomes more effective in getting to the heart of the matter of crime because crime does not exist in a vacuum. Without that deep dive into the why and who of crime/wrongdoing, we'll never be able to understand how exactly to stop it and make something constructive out of it. Punishment does none of that and instead causes more harm, creating this vicious cycle that we're caught up in now while also being extremely ineffective as a crime prevention tool. But it's the only way many of us know, especially if we grew up in very strict households, and so makes the most sense.
Outside of the legal/criminal system, how can a restorative justice approach improve our relationships?
There are a lot of interesting ideas about RJ's application outside of the justice system. For example, there's a strain of RJ that involves group decision making and processing that I think could be really useful in lots of different contexts. I think at it's most fundamental though, RJ just reminds us that our actions have consequences upon relationships in our lives and the way to move in the world is to acknowledge and honor all those relationships and work hard to build them up in a thoughtful and compassionate way. Otherwise, we can very easily and carelessly destroy our relationships, and that's very dangerous for everyone.