University of Vermont

Restorative Justice from New Zealand to Vermont

Kathy Fox
Kathy Fox, associate professor of sociology, sees a shift toward a more sociologial approach to offender reintegration that deals directly with the issues of transitioning back into society. (Photo: Ben Sarle)

When inmates are released from prison in a traditional criminal justice system, it’s primarily up to them to figure out how to navigate the obstacles involved with reintegration into society. While this lack of support has proven to contribute to recidivism, New Zealand and Vermont are among only a handful of places that use the principles of restorative justice in offender reintegration.

Kathy Fox, associate professor of sociology, traveled to New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar in the spring of 2013 to compare the two systems and to find out why the island country’s world-renowned restorative justice youth program hasn’t fully translated into its adult corrections system. An exhaustive five-month research program that included in-depth, open-ended interviews with more than 60 staff members, case managers, psychologists, judges and prisoners provided some surprising revelations.

Fox, who conducted her research while at Victoria University in Wellington, will publish her findings in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology in an article titled “Trying to Restore Justice: Bureaucracies, Risk Management and Disciplinary Boundaries in New Zealand Criminal Justice.”

“New Zealand is famous for restorative justice, so I assumed it would use aspects of restorative practice in reintegration, but for the most part they really don’t,” says Fox, adding that because its restorative justice youth system came about through child welfare legislation, New Zealand's adult criminal justice system has been slow to emerge and has little infrastructure in place. "In Vermont, we have a relatively progressive juvenile justice system, but we also apply it to our adult system. Our community justice infrastructure is unique in the U.S. and perhaps in the world. I came away thinking we were doing something pretty special here."

A new leader in restorative justice

Vermont’s adult restorative reintegration starts with a case meeting upon release with relevant stakeholders like family and other advocates present to develop a plan of support. A victim representative to whom the offender is accountable is also present to discuss the impact of the crime. Community team members commit to specific support duties and check in at weekly meetings. Fox says the team also challenges the offender on behaviors that seem risky or inappropriate, but stresses that it’s a strengths-based approach focusing on ways he or she can be a contributing member to society, rather than focusing on past mistakes.

“We’re the only state in the union that has this level of community justice infrastructure,” say Fox, who also studied a pilot project for sex offenders similar to one in Vermont called Circles of Support and Accountability, also used for other kinds of serious offenders as well. “I was surprised to hear leaders in New Zealand talking about the need to set up community justice centers and to run restorative justice programs. Vermont has had those for two decades and has a very robust community justice program. New Zealand is ahead in some respects, but in terms of having an infrastructure in place for taking small crimes away from the court system down to the community level, we’re definitely one of the leaders.”

Fox also looked at the history of restorative justice in New Zealand, where the concept was originated out of the values and practices of the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. It wasn’t until later that New Zealand defined the process as restorative justice, making the process more victim-centered and requiring offenders to take responsibility for their actions by completing tasks to repair the harm caused to victims, themselves and the community.

Fox says this history has contributed to an odd mix of restorative justice and punitive criminal justice, reflecting the “clash of indigenous practice and the importation of Anglo/western bureaucratic, adversarial justice.” High incarceration rates and lengthy prison terms fueled by politicians wanting to look tough on crime and a rigid corrections system makes restorative justice more of an “add on” to a traditional criminal justice system, Fox says. Because it’s used mostly in pre-sentencing when referred by judges, there is some suspicion about the sincerity of those willing to participate since they might be motivated by the prospect of a reduced sentence, she says.

“It hasn’t been adopted wholesale through the criminal justice system because of bureaucratic silos and restraints, so although people tend to think it’s worthwhile at some level, there is no consensus about what stage in the criminal justice process it is most appropriate to use,” Fox says. "Vermont has a more robust system in part because of the fact that the administration of restorative justice has been decentralized, allowing for more community control. In New Zealand, the government has tried to implement quality control, which tends to stifle the local flavor and unique community needs and feel. I was surprised to hear people say ‘We should create a community justice center infrastructure’ without even realizing that we’ve literally had this in place in Vermont since the early 1990s.”

A trend toward a more sociological approach

In a related second article to appear in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminology titled “Restoring the Social: Offender Reintegration in a Risky World,” Fox explores a trend toward using a more sociological approach to offender needs. Traditionally, a more psychological approach was used that addressed specific mental health issues with little regard for preparing offenders for obstacles they may face upon release.

This trend could make it easier for New Zealand to incorporate a more comprehensive restorative justice program into its offender reintegration efforts. Criminal justice leaders there could look to Vermont’s use of Community Justice Centers, which help with offender re-entry programs and “understand that there are a lot of social dimensions involved and that desisting from crime isn’t just about a person’s psychological problems,” Fox says.

“For a long time the line of thinking was that criminals needed psychological intervention and that if you targeted their treatment properly based on their needs and risk factors, then you could open the door of the prison and let them out, and they’d be fine,” Fox says. “Now there’s a greater recognition that during the transition back to the community – even if you are psychologically repaired – you still need housing and employment, and you still have relationship and acclimation issues because you’ve been inside for a long time. All the psychological treatment in the world isn’t necessarily going to ready you for these conditions, so by integrating restorative justice into community reintegration you would actively involve the community in helping them transition. Our community justice centers are a great example of how that can work.”