Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most criminal courts in Maine were forced to close, postponing criminal justice proceedings for hundreds of alleged offenders. In an effort to seek swift resolutions for cases involving low level offenses, the Office of the Cumberland County District Attorney instituted a pre-arraignment diversion program wherein offenders participated in a restorative justice dialogue via Zoom video conferencing technology instead of physically appearing in court. Restorative justice prioritizes healing and accountability, and is associated with reduced recidivism (e.g. Hansen & Umbreit, 2018), increased perceptions of fairness (e.g. Leonard & Kenny, 2011), and community building (e.g. Abraham, 2019). This study aimed to better understand the experiences of participants in this particular program.
Following the closure of their criminal cases, all participants in the restorative justice diversion program were contacted via phone and email. Eight out of the 40 people contacted participated in the study, a response rate of 20%. Semi-structured interviews were conducted using an original 35-item interview guide. Interviews were transcribed, and data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis (Drisko & Maschi, 2016). Descriptive statistics were also performed to analyze data from demographic and closed-ended items.
The mean age of participants was 33.5 (SD=9.38). Half the participants identified as female, and half identified as male. Six of the participants identified as white, one identified as African-American, and one identified as Black African.
Participants reported very positive experiences with the process. Specifically, seven of the eight participants indicated they were “very satisfied” with the restorative justice program on a five-point Likert scale; the same proportion rated the process as “very fair” on a five-point Likert scale.
Analyses of responses to open-ended questions yielded three themes. First, the majority of participants described the restorative justice dialogue as an opportunity to reflect on their past actions and make plans for future behavior change: “It was nice to reflect on it and be honest about what I've done and what my plans were to change and not to let it happen again moving forward.” Second, the process also afforded participants the opportunity to experience some form of resolution around the difficult emotions that accompanied the alleged offense: “It was just honestly a great feeling, very relieving... just like a weight lifted off my shoulders.” Third, multiple participants identified the restorative justice program as a more equitable and positive response to crime: “Instead of spending money...to pay for me to [go to] jail...I gain many things during the same period. For me, [the] restorative program is a good program.”
Conclusion and Implications
The findings from this exploratory study support other research indicating that restorative justice diversion programs may contribute to meaningful emotional and behavioral change for those charged with low-level offenses. Future research is needed to assess longer term impacts and possible wider applications in response to more serious offenses. Restorative justice has the potential to promote social justice by reducing the negative impacts of criminal justice involvement.