Last week the New York Times reported an interesting, and unusual, use of restorative justice in a murder case in Florida. The parents of a young woman who was killed by her boyfriend, along with the boyfriend, his parents, and the prosecutor, all participated in a pre-trial restorative justice process. Ultimately the prosecutor offered a plea deal which was less than the maximum and seems to have been based on both the recommendations of the victim’s parents and the prosecutor’s evaluation of the case following the restorative justice process. The defendant accepted a plea deal of twenty years in prison with a lengthy (ten year) probation term.
It is unusual since restorative justice is rarely used as a pre-trial process in violent crimes in this country. There are restorative justice programs for murder cases after the case is resolved in the criminal justice system, and these programs are often very specific about not allowing the offenders to use their participation to their advantage in parole or other proceedings. For one account of a post-conviction restorative justice process, see here. For a more detailed account of a few programs in Texas and the victim focused approach in these types of restorative justice proceedings, see here .
The case in Florida raises some interesting questions which are always present in discussions about restorative justice. For example, should victims determine the ultimate sentence? One concern is that allowing victims to determine outcomes will inevitably lead to similarly situated defendants being treated differently. Some take the view that the state, not private individuals, who should decide on appropriate plea offers and sentencing, and that it should be, as the prosecutor in this case in Florida said, “ … based on cool reflection of the facts and the evidence in the case…” The defendant in this case clearly accepted responsibility and was deeply sorry for his actions (he surrendered at a local police station almost directly after the killing). Do we think that an offender who is full of remorse and sorrow for their actions should be rewarded? These questions are even more important in the context of a criminal justice system that heavily penalizes those who contest their guilt and go to trial.
One question that the article fails to raise is perhaps the most difficult: what about offenders who are not white and middle class and whose family and victims don’t have the resources to find out about and advocate for such an alternative process? Race and class are a constant factor in our criminal justice system and cases such as this should require us all to think more critically not just about the unusual processes some offenders are able to take advantage of, but whether these processes should be more widely available for those who are less privileged and advantaged.
The full article from the New York Times is available here.