Boston Federal Court Tries Restorative Justice

To avoid prison terms, defendants who admitted serious crimes came face to face with people who had lost children and close family members to overdoses and shootings. So far, 15 people have “graduated” and only four have dropped out. “The initial signs re excellent,” say a federal judge.

In 2015, federal judge Leo Sorokin of Boston started a pilot program he had been envisioning for years. He called it RISE—Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge. RISE offered a rare second chance for adult defendants convicted of serious federal crimes to avoid prison, reports the American Prospect. A committee of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and probation officers met monthly to screen possible participants. Defendants had to have a history of addiction or a life of extreme deprivation. They had to plead guilty, and have sentencing postponed for 12 months, during which time they had to get clean, get jobs, go to school, and find a place to live. The core component of RISE was attendance at a two-day restorative justice workshop. RISE participants came face to face with people who had lost children and close family members to overdoses and shootings. Also there were prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and probation officers, but not in traditional roles. They shared personal experiences, and offered support. Mostly, they listened without judgment as the offenders haltingly described their own victimization. They spoke of their addiction, mental illness, abuse, and poverty.

Restorative justice requires its participants to lay bare feelings—self-loathing, suffering, rage, loneliness, rejection—they have hidden from the world and often from themselves. The face-to-face open dialogue process is focused on personal accountability and reparation. It requires that victims and offenders share deeply personal and painful life experiences with the least likely person in the world—each other. The RISE program has 15 graduates, and 11 current participants. Four people have been terminated from the program for failing to complete it. U.S. District Judge Patti  Saris says it’s too soon to tell if RISE will be successful because there are not enough data to make an empirical assessment, but “the initial signs are excellent.”