Restorative Justice

(Written during the six week Eisenhower Fellowship in U.S. in 2012)

San Francisco

After Portland, San Francisco was the second place where yet another governmental effort of civic engagement is seen. Interestingly, not in some developmental programme, but somewhere you will expect it least- criminal justice. The District Attorney (DA), City and County of San Fransisco, George Gascon, who has over thirty years of experience in police is now practicing restorative justice. As an elected person, he has some discretion in who to prosecute; and he is using it in a very significant manner for the society. His logic for doing this- there is evidence to prove that incarceration does not fix things!

The goal is to decriminalise lower levels of crimes. The traditional court system and incarceration has significant economic cost for the government. And it also causes social displacements. So, 9 neighbourhood courts have been established. These are run by people from the community, who have volunteered for the same. After giving training to these people, the DA’s office appoints three people for each neighbourhood court (NC). The neighbourhood court works without lawyers. The offender has an option to admit his mistake, and enter the NC programme wherein he is awarded some sanctions and penalties of the nature of repairing the harm done to the victim and some community work. For e.g. if a person has done graffiti on some private property, he may be asked to get that cleaned up at his expense; and also to teach art in some school to children for a stipulated time! The NC volunteers are also trained through non-profits specialising in mediation. While the police offer this programme to the offender, they themselves are not part of the NC process. (Hence, the criticism of police trying to suppress the weak through an informal NC mechanism may not arise in this case. This was one of the criticisms of a similar dispute resolution programme initiated by Government of Maharashtra, India).

The approach is being tried for juvenile cases as well.

The DA office is also trying to reach out to schools to talk about various issues to children, so that their vulnerability to being a victim or an offender reduces.

The approach has been proven to be more useful in decreasing criminalisation, reducing costs of justice and quicker justice (typically, the decision of penalty is given in 2 weeks, and the offender has to comply with the decision within 6 months). Thus it can be a win-win for the system, offender and the victim.

The DA is also initiating predictive analysis in prosecution through the use of IT (algorithms). A set of factors are planned to be used to predict the risk of a person committing crime, and the type of crime (and hence the preventive measures required) likely to be committed.

George is a Cuban who has seen the possible detrimental effect ‘authority’ can have on a population. He believes (rightly!) that the number of people who are really very dangerous for the community and should be dealt with sternly is very small. (He has a reputation, by the way of dealing sternly with such crimes, and believes both should be done simultaneously). A large majority of other criminals are people for whom such restorative/reformative processes are more likely to benefit the society than an incarceration approach. A community where people can themselves manage most of their affairs (minimal police!), a system where more good people are out on the streets, pushing out the bad people- that is his goal. That drives him.


  • Politically elected people have a greater potential for bringing about change
  • Evidence-based policy yields better results
  • Earlier success develops trust and opens ways for newer innovations
  • A personal history/experience can be a big driver/reason for beliefs and passion
  • Catch them young



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