Restorative Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration

By Jennifer Lieser-Deubler, WLALA Criminal Justice Section Co-Chair, and Darcy Morris, WLALA Member

July 2020

 WLALA held a panel on Restorative Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration on June 10, 2020, which is recorded and available on the website.  The panelists included Loyola Law School Emeritus Professor Scott Wood, the Honorable Suzanne H. Segal (Ret.), Deputy District Attorney Gilbert Wright, Deputy City Attorney Jose Egurbide, and U.C. Irvine School of Law Professor Katie Tinto. 

            Scott Wood, who founded the Loyola Law School Center for Restorative Justice, introduced the concept of restorative justice.  He explained that the major difference between a “restorative justice” system and a criminal court system is the questions each seeks to answer.   In a traditional criminal court setting, the questions are: “who did it, what did they do, and what do they deserve.”  Restorative justice instead identifies harms, needs, and obligations, and is where the violation is usually to a person or a relationship.  Restorative justice processes have been increasingly utilized in the United States, and in fact, they have been implemented in all fifty states and at all stages of the legal process.

            One of the courts that has implemented restorative justice is the United States District Court for the Central District of California.  The Honorable Suzanne H. Segal, former United States Magistrate Judge, had first-hand experience as one of the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives (CASA) Program Judges.  She shared the way the program worked—a defendant whose criminal conduct is related to a factor beyond his or her control, such as mental health or drug addiction, can be screened for admission into the program by the CASA team.  If the defendant is admitted into the program, he or she signs a contract for all traditional bond obligations, and commits to attend a weekly meeting to make sure he or she is staying on track with treatment and other program obligations.  The goal is to address the issue that caused the criminal conduct, and prevent it from happening again in the future. 

            Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Gilbert Wright heads the Mental Health Division that was created in 2019 after Jackie Lacey endorsed the “Blueprint for Change” mental health initiative.  Mr. Wright stated that the mission is to get as many people out of county jail and into community-based systems of care.  His division also staffs the alternative sentencing courts that have been around for several years.

            Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Jose Egurbide spoke about the Neighborhood Justice Program, which he used to supervise.  He explained that the goal of restorative justice in the NJP is to change the lens on how we approach a particular occurrence, focusing on human relationships in the community and how to fix them.  He highlighted the program’s shift from a punitive-based system that overburdens offenders to a system that evaluates risks and needs and focuses on what is best for the client. 

            Katie Tinto, the director of the U.C. Irvine School of Law Criminal Justice Clinic, specifically discussed the importance of not setting up for failure a client who has mental health needs.  She suggested seeing what the client is already doing in terms of mental health treatment, what the client wants to do, and what is financially reasonable.  To qualify for diversion, there typically should be a medical diagnosis, where the symptoms of the diagnosis are the motivating factor for the offense and the diagnosis is amenable to treatment in the mental health court. 

            Finally, the panel addressed the state of the community during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and more recently with the protests.  Because of COVID-19, Mr. Wright stated that the community goal has been to get as many people out of county jail as possible, and he noted that the county jail population has decreased from 17,000 to 11,000.  With the protestors and imposed curfews, the usual punitive response by the prosecution has instead been geared towards engaging in a dialogue and listening to the outrage.  This aligns with the principles behind the restorative justice system, which will hopefully allow all of the different people involved to have a productive conversation instead of arrests and punishment.

            Thank you to all of the panelists involved and particularly to our moderator, WLALA Second Vice President/Treasurer Janet Hong.  We are thrilled we were able to hold the panel over video conference for such an important dialogue in our community.