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Restorative justice is commonly defined as an approach to justice that focuses on addressing the harm caused by crime rather than merely the punishment for it. While holding the offender responsible for their actions, restorative justice looks to provide all parties directly affected by the crime – victims, offenders, and communities – a chance to address their needs in the aftermath of a crime.

When a crime has been committed, the needs of those harmed needs to be addressed first and foremost. Punishment – especially incarceration alone – does little for the victim and, without an emphasis on rehabilitation and restitution, does little for the society it was designed to serve. Restorative justice emphasizes the obligation to make amends – to repair whatever damage has been committed. This can give the offender a chance to truly understand the impact of the crime they committed against the victim.

Giving an offender the opportunity to see the impact of and take responsibility for their actions can give them a second chance in life–the opportunity for real personal growth and to contribute to society. At some point, an individual will have served their time and be released, deemed to have paid their debt to society. When this occurs, ideally, we want to keep ex-offenders from reoffending by giving them opportunities and an ability to start fresh.

Reoffending rates are much lower in Canada than in the US for several reasons. Restorative justice has been standard practice in Canada for over 40 years including the chance to get out from under the stigma of a criminal record. For instance, Canadians are entitled to apply for a Record Suspension (formerly known as a Canadian Pardon) after a certain time passes from when their sentence ended thus giving them a chance to start over. In the US, pardons are typically non-existent until the Governor of the specific State decides it’s time to give a few people a second chance. Canadians are allowed to apply through the Parole Board of Canada.

The US currently has a very short-sighted vision of criminal justice reform and restorative justice, despite the studies and the outpouring of advocates in favor of a new approach. There is an over-incarceration issue and many of the punishments don’t suit the crimes committed.  Incarceration is known not to prevent future violent behavior – in fact, it breeds violence and creates a new victim population among the incarcerated. Prisons are renowned for violence among both inmates and staff.

Not only does over-criminalization and over-incarceration do little for the victim or the offender, it hurts economies and denies millions of people opportunities. When a person is released from prison in the US it is not uncommon for them to be given $50 and a bus ticket home. With little focus on rehabilitation and few resources, released convicts face more obstacles than opportunities – reoffending becomes only a matter of time.

In California alone, there are more people in prison than there are in college. In North Carolina, the courts hand out more than 100,000 convictions each year but fewer than 2,000 people have had a conviction expunged (cleared or sealed) since 2011. Overall, as many as 1-in-3 Americans have a criminal record and one in two has a family member who has been incarcerated. Researchers estimate that time in prison and felony records, drain $87 billion from the American annual gross domestic product.

On the positive side, Clean Slate Laws, Ban the Box campaigns, and Fair-Chance Hiring policies are making their mark. In response to a legal industry lobby, whole states are turning to automatic expungements. California just cleared the records of 8 million people with low-level cannabis possessions. These are all steps in the right direction of converting criminals into law-abiding taxpayers. Criminal justice reform based on restorative justice gives people the chance to start fresh and contribute to society rather than drain it of resources. Recent studies have shown that restorative justice initiatives build empathy and reduce violent reoffending by up to 75%.

I’ve learned from my time at AllCleared, that 1-in-8 Canadians have a criminal record. That is a pretty significant number. AllCleared was founded on the belief that individuals with a past criminal record deserve a fresh start. Most crimes are committed between the ages of 17 and 26 years of age. A crime committed at 17 years of age can reroute a person’s life, not just for their sentence, but for their entire life. With the opportunity to make things right by first accepting responsibility, engaging in restitution, and having access to transformative opportunities rather than obstacles, new mindsets can begin to grow. Change is real and it can happen.