Restorative Justice Moves Victims to the Center of the Criminal Justice System
By Julie Pitta
Last February, Sandra Sutherland watched her husband of 44 years slip away. Jack Palladino, a private investigator and local legend, was attacked in front of their Haight-Ashbury home. His assailants wanted the expensive camera that dangled from his neck. Four days later, Palladino, who fell during the robbery, was dead.
Sutherland was not only her husband’s partner in life, she shared his business. Together, they ran a detective agency that did work for high-profile clients, like former President Bill Clinton, the family of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Sutherland was still grieving when she was asked to sign a public letter supporting San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. She did not hesitate. Had her husband recovered, she said, he would have done the same. Palladino voted for Boudin and was a supporter of criminal justice reform. “I dislike the pile-on on Chesa Boudin,” Sutherland said. “It seems like a cheap shot.”
In January 2020, Boudin was sworn in as San Francisco’s 27th district attorney. He came into office five years after Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was murdered by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Brown’s death incited three waves of protests, and launched a painful dialogue about the mistreatment African-Americans receive at the hands of police and in the criminal justice system. Boudin joined other progressive prosecutors who were elected after Brown’s murder, notably Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
During the campaign, Boudin pledged to offer restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration. He’s made good on his promise, establishing a restorative justice program and expanding services to crime victims, a necessary piece of the initiative.
Restorative justice is often misunderstood and frequently misrepresented. A simple explanation is that it shifts the goal of criminal justice from punishment to repairing the damage done to victims and communities by crime. Traditionally, criminal justice has treated victims as little more than evidence. Once they’ve given testimony, they’re relegated to the sidelines while prosecutors and judges exact punishment.
Restorative justice moves victims squarely to center of the process. In an interview with National Public Radio shortly after taking office, Boudin said his priority was allowing victims “the right to choose different paths to restoration and to healing …. And hopefully, over time, we can collectively transform our culture into one that prioritizes healing and prevention instead of simply focusing on punishment.”
The first restorative justice program was created in Ontario, Canada in the mid-1970s. In 1974, parole officer Mark Yantzi successfully mediated a meeting between two teenagers arrested for vandalism and their victims. Yantzi hammered out an agreement in which the teens restored damaged property to the satisfaction of its owners. The young men were spared a prison sentence and the victims saw tangible results. In the 1980s and 1990s, restorative justice programs were established throughout North America and Europe.
Restorative justice programs are responses to the failure of the criminal justice system to do more than punish perpetrators of crime, a single-minded pursuit that has failed. Countless surveys have documented victim dissatisfaction with a system which disregards crime prevention and rehabilitation, and instead invests the bulk of its dollars and energy in punishment. Incarceration is mostly ineffective: According to a 2019 U.S. Sentencing Commission report, nearly 64% of those serving time in federal prisons for violent crimes are re-arrested within eight years of release. Finally, it’s expensive: Incarceration costs, on average, $81,000 a year per inmate in California.
Last March, a 20-year-old was arrested in San Francisco’s Bayview District on suspicion of robbery, elder abuse, a hate crime and a probation violation. The young man posted on social media about his attack on an elderly Asian resident, which provoked outrage from City leaders.
Following the arrest, Boudin and his representatives met with the victim. After several discussions, the victim asked for restorative justice. The DA’s office mediated an agreement between the victim and perpetrator. Charges were dropped. If the plan fails the district attorney retains the option to file criminal charges. The victim was satisfied with the outcome of the mediation, the 20-year-old gained a greater understanding of the harm he caused, and countless city dollars were saved.
Restorative justice is not an option in all cases. The day Jack Palladino died, Boudin filed murder charges against the two men who attacked him. Boudin takes seriously his primary responsibility, that of ensuring public safety. The two men who murdered an elderly man are unlikely candidates for restorative justice. In a case like that one, count on the district attorney to file maximum charges. This is a DA who is both tough and compassionate.
Julie Pitta is a member of the governing board of Richmond District Rising. Richmond District Rising builds electoral and political power for working-class people, people of color, and other historically oppressed communities to ensure a progressive, liberated and equitable Richmond District. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.