Restorative Justice Circles in Racine Correctional Institution

This blog post is coauthored by Professors Judith G. McMullen and Mary E. Triggiano.

Andrew Center LogoEarly last month, a group from Marquette University Law School began a restorative justice (RJ) circle event at Racine Correctional Institution. One of us (Professor Mary Triggiano, Director of the Andrew Center for Restorative Justice and former Chief Judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court) guided the other (Professor Judith McMullen), six law students, eight community members, and 18 incarcerated men through a series of RJ circles over the course of three days. We believe that our community may be interested in this brief account of the experience.

RJ brings people who have harmed others together with people who have been harmed and with community members to promote understanding and healing. RJ practices borrow heavily from methods used by indigenous peoples to solve disputes, mend social relationships, and promote healing. The essence of RJ is “the circle,” where participants sit, whether in chairs or on the floor, in a circle, the facilitator asks a question, and a talking piece is then passed from person to person. Only the person holding the talking piece can speak; no one is allowed to interrupt, and all are asked to practice deep listening and to share stories with an open heart.

A foundational idea of RJ is that when someone commits a harm, there is a ripple effect such that not only the victim of the crime is hurt but so, too, are people in that person’s family and broader community—hence the need in appropriate instances to bring together into the circle survivors of crime, family members, community members, and those who have harmed. RJ challenges participants to see each other’s points of view or experiences, to take ownership of acts they have committed, and to have empathy for each other’s suffering. A tall order, indeed.

On the first day of circles at Racine Correctional Institution, incarcerated men, survivors of violent crimes, and community members took part in various circles, answering queries posed by Triggiano, and listening to each other. This sharing of experience leads circle participants to see each other as fellow human beings with a number of similar needs, fears, and hopes. At one point, the circle was divided into groups to discuss the ripple effect of a hypothetical armed robbery of a mom-and-pop grocery store during which the store owner falls and breaks his hip. Group members quickly identified the harmful effects not only on the unfortunate grocer but also on his family, his employees, his customers, the neighborhood, the first responders, the families of the robbers, and even the robbers themselves. Later, participants would begin to identify the ripple effects of harm they themselves had committed or harms they themselves had suffered.

The second day of the circle centered on the incredibly painful stories of three courageous individuals who had survived violent crimes. Each survivor spoke at length about their life, experiences before, during, and “after” being harmed, and the toll the harm took on them and on their family. Then, each participant in the circle spoke about their reaction to the stories. The near-term impact of these shared stories on the circle participants was almost breathtaking.

Day three focused on healing harms to self and others. As the talking piece was passed around and circle members described the impact of hearing the experiences of survivors, several participants acknowledged that they had not considered the ripple effects of things they had done in the past, but hearing from people who had been harmed by similar crimes stopped them in their tracks and allowed them to own up to what they had done. Listening to the survivors led the men to remember some wrongs that they themselves had experienced and the painful feelings associated with those events. Community participants and survivors came to realize that many of the incarcerated men had themselves survived violent crimes of all sorts. Day three also included a skit designed to lead participants to identify and describe the positive effects of RJ. We divided into five groups, and acted out a skit where several people would try to convince a drug dealer to participate in an RJ circle. Speaking as someone who played the role of drug dealer, Professor McMullen can state from experience that the exercise not only summarized the RJ process and effects but also made everyone walk in someone else’s shoes and look at the world from another perspective.

We were, as one community participant put it, planting seeds of compassion, empathy, understanding, and healing. But we also were able to see tiny sprouts emerge from some of the seeds in the RJ circles. The Law School’s Andrew Center for Restorative Justice is poised to facilitate more circles at Racine Correctional Institution in the future to nurture those sprouts and plant more seeds of hope.

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Interrupting the Intergenerational Trauma of Family Violence

Shadows of child and adult holding handsIn recent years, lawyers and judges have increasingly recognized the role that exposure to trauma plays in the lives of persons who are involved with the legal system. While trauma can come in many forms,  providers of mental health or legal services need to be especially aware of trauma that is ongoing and has intergenerational consequences. The term “intergenerational trauma” has most often been associated with societal trauma that has been inflicted on certain racial or ethnic groups, who live with the effects and pass them along to succeeding generations. Frequently discussed examples of this are African American slavery, Native American forced attendance at boarding schools, and the Holocaust of World War II. All of these horrors affected survivors in a myriad of ways, and the economic, social, and emotional impact can be felt many generations later.

Here, though, I want to focus on a more mundane and equal-opportunity form of intergenerational trauma: family violence, which is defined here as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or aggression directed against an intimate partner or child in the family. These are sadly common behaviors that occur across race, gender, and socio-economic status lines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over their lifetimes, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience physical or sexual violence or stalking, and more than 43 million women and 38 million men experience psychological aggression. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that in 2019 there were approximately 656,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in the U.S., which is a rate of 8.9 victims per 1,000 children Certain ethnic groups such as American Indians and African Americans had even higher rates, and children under 1 year of age had a rate of victimization equal to 25.7 per 1,000 children. Evidence suggests that the incidents of family violence have increased during the isolation, stress, and lock-downs of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While conventional wisdom has long suggested that children living in violent homes may learn to be abusers or victims when they grow up, research on the biopsychosocial nature of family violence gives us insight into why this is the case.

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What Does Addiction Look Like?

Picture of PillsWhen lawyers think about working with clients who have addictions, we often imagine clients who are young or middle-aged and facing legal consequences such as criminal charges for drug possession or for driving under the influence of alcohol or another drug. But not every person struggling with addictions is young, in trouble with law enforcement, or even using substances in a visible way that signals addiction to family members or professionals.

More than 2.5 million adults over age 55 struggle with addictions every year in the United States.

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