6. Preempting Incarceration: 
Restorative Justice for Disruptive & At-Risk Youth in High Schools

PJR Vol. 9, Issue 4, 2019, The Returning Citizen: A Public Justice Perspective on Reintegrating the Formerly Incarcerated

Suubi Mondesir is an honor student at Fairleigh Dickinson University where she is a double major, studying communications, government and law, with a concentration in journalism. She is the vice president of Fairleigh Dickinson’s College Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and has won several awards for her writing, including Gold and Silver Keys from the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition. Suubi was also a featured writer for the The Journal magazine for her article entitled, “The Colors of a New Generation”. She is an alumna of the Hugh N. Boyd Journalism Diversity Program at Rutgers University


Editor's Note: The concepts and content of this article originated as part of a research project at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The author utilized excerpts, research data points, and other information from the research project and modified the original to create a new article for Public Justice Review (PJR). 



The Problem


As many lawmakers and American citizens now grapple with the issue of mass incarceration, one wonders how we arrived at such a state. There are various possibilities; the War on Drugs, the criminalization of poverty, and mandatory minimum sentences are all culprits. It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to identify ways to reduce the current number of incarcerated people. Rather the purpose of this article is to offer a possible way to prevent incarceration in the first place. 


Restorative justice practices offer important components for addressing some of the challenges in the criminal justice system. And while it is important to correct the flaws in the criminal justice system, preventing engagement with the system altogether is a better option. Restorative justice is identified as “an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims, offenders, and the involved community. This contrasts to more punitive approaches where the main aim is to punish the offender.” Restorative justice, as the name suggests, is aimed at restoring the people who are involved. While restorative justice is primarily evoked in dealing with crime and punishment, restorative justice practices are also helpful when it comes to school discipline. 


Many Christian believers are familiar with restorative justice practices from scripture. In the Gospel of John, Jesus forgives the woman who is brought to him and accused of adultery, and commands her to sin no more. (John 8:1-11) In the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, committed to pay back four times as much if he had defrauded anyone of anything (Luke 19:1-8). One of the many recurring themes throughout the Bible is that of restoration and redemption. For Christians, a restorative approach to punishment and justice align with the word and witness of Jesus Christ.  

A Shocking Statistic

A study from the Justice Policy Institute found that “twenty-three percent of students disciplined in middle or high school ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer.” Many people may not realize it, but school discipline and later interaction with the criminal justice system are related. Fortunately, some people are taking steps away from punitive discipline. The Rockford school district in Illinois approved a discipline code that “seeks to refocus the student discipline away from punishment and toward rehabilitation.” In addition, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Education Association (NEA) are moving in this direction. In one of its resolutions on the topic, the NEA defines the school-to-prison pipeline this way: “The school-to-prison Pipeline means the policies and practices that are directly and indirectly pushing students of color out of school and on a pathway to prison, including, but not limited to: harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, increased policing and surveillance that create prison-like environments in schools, overreliance on referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, and an alienating and punitive high-stakes testing-driven academic environment.” In our world of mass incarceration, diverting students from the criminal justice system is one effective way to reverse the trends. 


Restorative justice is about taking a more educated and nuanced approach to the way we deal with crime. In school settings this means addressing the way we deal with disciplinary issues so as to promote rehabilitation and healing. Rehabilitation and healing are two components of Jesus’ ministry and both are at the core of solving problems the way God calls us to do so. Restorative justice does not allow the offender to go free without some form of punishment, rather it encourages and seeks opportunities to restore all parties (victim, offender, community) to a better place.


Discipline and At-Risk Youth in High Schools


Before going further, it is important to define a term that is common in conversations about youth and restorative justice: “at-risk”. 


At-risk is “a term used to describe a student who requires temporary or ongoing intervention in order to succeed academically. At-risk students, sometimes referred to as at-risk youth or at-promise youth, are also adolescents who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency. Characteristics of at-risk students include emotional or behavioral problems, truancy, low academic performance, showing a lack of interest for academics, and expressing a disconnection from the school environment.”

“Disruptive youth” describes students who intentionally disrupt the class environment, teacher and learning process. Their actions negatively impact classroom instruction and distract from the purpose of school, which is to learn in a safe environment. Disruptive youth often have issues at home, which could be anything from lack of attention to abuse. They act out because they have not learned how to properly express themselves and their emotions. At-risk youth, barring some type of intervention, are less likely to make a positive transition forward. These students are more likely to dropout or fail academically than non at-risk students. Factors that contribute to at-risk youth include, domestic violence, child abuse and or neglect, low socioeconomic status, multiple family responsibilities, and low parental expectation. 

Unfortunately, budget shortfalls, overcrowding in classrooms, and general lack of support (fiscal and otherwise) for public schools place teachers and administrations under tremendous strain. Under these conditions, it is easy to understand why punitive models of discipline would be employed. But the NEA recognizes that the system and practices of student discipline within schools somewhat resembles the nation’s criminal justice system. In the introduction to a resolution on the topic, the NEA says “the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately places students of color, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or are English Language Learners, into the criminal justice system for minor school infractions and disciplinary matters, subjecting them to harsher punishments than their white peers for the same behaviors. The school-to-prison pipeline diminishes their educational opportunities and life trajectories.” 

The Prison Policy Initiative found that “incarceration has serious, harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, their economic and social prospects, [and] their relationships.” This is only heightened for young people who are in a crucial developmental stage in life. Laura MacDougall, in a May 2017 Shared Justice article, wrote about the effects of youth incarceration on siblings and how it is detrimental to the family. Additionally, in another Shared Justice article, writers Andrew Whitworth and Morgan Barney advocate for closing youth prisons. While theories and proposals abound, the one undeniable fact is that something must be done. 


Carrie Menkel-Meadow, an American lawyer and scholar of dispute resolution, argues that “we shouldn’t see crime as one dimensional, but as having many sides.” In her article published in William and Mary Law Review, she goes on to say “modern life presents us with complex problems, often requiring complex and multifaceted solutions. Courts, with their limited remedial imaginations, may not be the best institutional settings for resolving some of the disputes that we continue to put before them.” 


While not denying the role and need for courts, Menkel-Meadow rightly notes that some types of disputes are best settled away from the courtroom. In our fiscally-strapped federal, state, and municipal governments, efficiency and expediency are the name of the game. The court system generally chooses from a small menu of options as possible solutions to crime: fines, surveillance, and/or incarceration. Crime and criminal justice, however, is not a “one size fits all” situation, and each crime that is committed should be dealt with differently. Restorative justice practices in schools would serve as a preventative measure for at risk and disruptive youth in high school.  


Issues Facing High School Students


For some, the high school years are the best and most exciting years of their lives. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone. High school years can also be very stressful for students applying for colleges, managing relationships and friend groups, and navigating life in general. Understood, a nonprofit made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators, understands that children learn and think differently. The organization published a study and noted that the five most stressful aspects of high school are (1) fear of failure, (2) tougher academics and more responsibility, (3) social pressures, (4) uncertainty about the future, and (5) concerns about college.


Fear of the unknown is a big challenge for many high school students. Decisions made in high school can affect the rest of one’s life. Pressure and stress can easily turn into anger, resulting in bad decisions. Stress and anger also can lead to bullying, creating toxic learning environments. The National Bullying Prevention Center found that “33% of students who reported being bullied at school indicated that they were bullied at least once or twice a month during the school year.” Such bullying is often the result of unaddressed internal issues that lead to anger and get expressed in unhealthy ways. Restorative justice would help address such issues through mediation, talking circles, and other means.


Concepts of Public Justice at Work


The Center for Public Justice (CPJ), which offers a public justice framework, advocates equitable public funding for all children, allowing parents to choose the means of education that is best for their children. Further, CPJ believes that “those who educate and establish schools should be free to decide on the philosophical and pedagogical approaches they offer, the curricula they adopt, and the means of governing and administering the schools they open to the public.”


A public justice perspective recognizes that some students learn differently and therefore, should have access to alternative learning plans. When results show disruptive/disadvantaged students seem to be  moving into the school-to-prison pipeline, then individuals, government and institutions of civil society have a responsibility to offer effective alternatives for students and families. Parents, teachers, and school administrators should work to find alternative solutions for student disciplinary problems. 


Parents, Teachers, School Administrators and the Community


Many school administrators address student disciplinary issues with detentions, write-ups, suspension, and expulsion. These methods, despite their benefits, often do little to address the root of the problem, the student’s extenuating circumstances. Extenuating circumstances can include food insecurity; homelessness; physical, mental, and substance abuse; violence; and poverty. Much like those criminalized through poverty, at-risk youth in schools are often victims of their own circumstances, and fall victim to punitive measures with negative outcomes. 


Dr. Elizabeth Pufall Jones, a Qualitative Research Science for the Center of Promise writes, “even school leaders don’t think suspensions lead to positive outcomes. A 2014 survey of 500 superintendents across 48 states found that 92 percent of superintendents believe that out-of-school suspension is associated with negative student outcomes, including loss of instructional time and increased disengagement, absenteeism, truancy and dropout.”


This statistic cries out for better alternatives. A public justice framework would require that government and the institutions of civil society should work towards reducing mass incarceration and promoting positive educational outcomes for students and young people. 


Center for Public Justice (CPJ) guidelines for education hold that: “In justly exercising its responsibility to provide for the general welfare, the government may–and indeed should–help parents meet their responsibilities. For most of American history, such assistance has included the funding of elementary and secondary education.” 


Perhaps school administrations can also develop alternatives to suspension, expulsion, and/or removal from school. For students who are already at a disadvantage because of socio-economic factors, reducing instructional time through suspensions/expulsions is counter-productive. 

Parents have a critically important role in helping their children. Parents must help ensure that their children’s behavior is acceptable and appropriate for the school’s learning  environment. Administering proper discipline at home, teaching respect for rules and those in authority, and being able to receive feedback are all ways adults can help reduce issues at school.


Teachers also have a crucial role in this area. Next to parents/family members, teachers are probably the most influential person in a student’s life. Teachers should get to know each student’s motivations and goals and work with parents to develop learning plans for the student. 


Finally, the community can help preempt incarceration. Local churches, community organizations like the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and youth sports organizations all can be a part of the communal solution to the problem of at-risk youth and the incarceration crisis. 


Restorative Justice as Part of the Solution


Methods are currently being tested and implemented around the country to help with the complex issue of discipline in school. A 2015 Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and Duke Law School study titled Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline identified several ways to mitigate the negative outcomes of punitive discipline at school. The report outlined ten methods, among which restorative justice was one. Mindfulness meditation and other centering practices have been tested in other areas. 


One widely used restorative justice practice that has shown promise is talking circles. This method allows students to begin to understand how their actions negatively impact others. Talking circles, which include victim and support people, offender and support people, and a facilitator, let both parties voice their perspectives and understanding of the story. In these talking circles, students are treated like adults, rather than simply sent to the principal's office. Students begin to learn to solve their problems in a mature way and learn to be accountable for their actions. 




As the United States wrestles with its incarceration problem, it could address the problem before it starts. Helping young people avoid situations that get them into the criminal justice system would definitely curb the increase in the prison population. It seems clear that part of the solution could lie in focusing on redemption and restoration rather than hyper-criminalization. God’s everlasting love continually calls out to God’s creation for restoration. God desires to be reconciled with us, as shown by his sending Jesus Christ to save humanity. This saving grace, this redeeming nature of Jesus is what should guide our vision of justice. 


Restorative justice methods attempt to address the myriad of issues young people face: fear of failure, tougher academics, more responsibility, social pressures, and uncertainty about the future. Restorative justice practices will also help root out other issues at-risk youth may face, including domestic violence, child abuse and or neglect, low socioeconomic status, and low parental expectation. 


Taking a public justice perspective allows us to see how government institutions and civil society organizations can help students avoid the criminal justice system by assisting them in addressing their issues head on through restorative practices, rather than brushing off their problems. By actively working with young people before they enter the system, community organizations, Christian citizens, and government agencies can save lives and create a better and safer society for all citizens.


As Christians, we are instructed to take the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as our guide. Jesus restored the sick to health (Matthew 9) and restored the dead to life (John 11:43-44). In Luke 10, after telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus instructs those listening to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). We should go and do likewise--seeking to restore people, especially young people, and prevent them from becoming entangled in the complex system of criminal justice in the United States of America.  



 To respond to the author of this article please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in the Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.


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