Photo by Michael Weizenegger

Alternatives to Incarceration: A conversation with Lauren Abramson

Conversations on Participatory Democracy

Innovative democratic professionals are encouraging greater participation in some of our most fundamental institutions, yet what they are doing is rarely the focus of political theory, social science research, or what politicians talk about when they are talking about renewing American democracy. The conversations in this series aim to shed light on new democratic practices taking shape and to find out more about the dynamic people involved.

Photo by Michael Weizenegger
Photo by Michael Weizenegger

Lauren Abramson is the founder of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, which helps people handle problems on their own instead of turning them over to the formal criminal justice system.  We talked recently about the motivations that drive her work, the barriers she has faced, and the pathways that can lead to culture change in the U.S.


Albert Dzur: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get involved in community conferencing in criminal justice?

 Lauren Abramson: My doctorate is in neuroscience and animal behavior and I was for a long time studying how emotions affect health and illness.  I have also always been interested in working in communities.  I grew up in Detroit and became very imprinted on rust belt cities and close neighborhoods like the one I grew up in.  So when I moved to Baltimore in 1990 I started working through my faculty appointment at Johns Hopkins in a community mental health program that was working to build on-site mental health services at Head Start agencies.  So I had these two parallel tracks and interests: doing community based mental health work and doing more basic research in biology about how emotions affect our health and illness.

In 1994, I was at a conference in Philadelphia of the Silvan Tomkins institute.  Silvan Tomkins was a mentor of mine.  He was just brilliant in understanding that what motivates human beings is our emotions.  So at this conference there was an Australian talking about community conferencing work they were doing where they bring together victims and the young offenders and their family members.  They all sit in a circle and they get a chance to say how they were affected by what happened and they figure out how to make it right.  I thought, “Wow, this is a way for people to be healthy emotionally with each other, and not necessarily in an office with a professional.  I could take this back to Baltimore and bring it back to the neighborhoods.  I could merge my two interests.”  A light bulb went off.  So the next year, in 1995, the folks from Australia came and did their first training in community conferencing in Pennsylvania and from then on I was just hooked by the power of this process.

I have worked in behavioral medicine clinics where people have all sorts of physical ailments stemming from ways they have not been able to really be emotional and really express how they feel.  If you back up your anger or if you are afraid all the time then you get heart problems or jaw problems or gut problems.  I really believe that we need to be emotional with each other in ways that are helpful—not in the Jerry Springer kind of way.

Lauren Abramson: Better Justice from PopTech on Vimeo.

 AD: So your academic interest in emotional well-being ties into the community work.

 LA: Definitely.  I think that it has also very much informed how we do this work.  We have kept it grounded in how important the emotional piece of it is.  In this country especially we tend to put a damper on people’s emotions.  Because we understand that being able to express emotion is fundamental to effective conflict transformation, we do a fair amount of training with our facilitators to allow for emotional expression–so long as participants keep it focused on their own experience.  We want to maximize the facilitators’ comfort level with people expressing strong emotions, so they don’t also become part of the “emotion damper brigade” that is so much a part of American culture.

AD: What are some of the barriers you face when you are trying to develop this alternative structure?  You have made a distinction between black robe justice and community justice.  Is this a barrier—that we have become dependent upon black robe justice?

LA: I think we have been imprinted with this sense that black robe justice is the only real way to do justice.  So we have created all sorts of institutions around having other people—experts—resolve our conflicts for us.  It comes back to Nils Christie’s point about conflicts as property.  This whole structure—police, courts, lawyers, social services, etc.—has taken ownership of our conflicts and they do not want to give it up.  This is true on both ends.  They do not want to give it up and they have created this sense in people that they are the only true purveyors of this product.  We get people who say, “No, this kid’s got to go to court.  He’s got to go to jail.”  And we will say, “Have you ever been to court?” (because many people have); and then we ask, “How did that work out for you?”  Then when they think about how it worked out for them it was often a terrible experience.  But sometimes they still want to go back.  So we say, “Well, look, if you try community conferencing and it doesn’t work you can still always go to court.”

AD: Tell me more about how your conversation goes with someone who is a good candidate for community conferencing but is initially reluctant.

LA: Let’s say somebody’s car was stolen and they are so upset.  You say, “It sounds like you’ve been really affected by this.  Would you like a chance to tell the people who stole your car how this has affected you?  Keep in mind that if you go to court you’re not going to get that chance.  And this meeting would also give you a chance to be able to decide what can be done to make this right.  Is that something you’d like to try?”

AD: You’re not saying it is either/or.  People can always take the formal black robe route if they want.

LA: Absolutely.  They have that flexibility.

To get back to the question of the current status quo, from the institutional end there sometimes this inertia that a bureaucracy’s main function becomes to sustain itself.  They do not want to give up too many cases or it would look like they are not needed anymore.

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AD: They will give up some cases to community conferencing but not others.

LA: Well they tend to initially want to give up the cases that bug them—that they do not want to deal with—which a lot of the times are either very minor cases, or cases with which they tend to have little success but which tend to be complicated at their root—such as neighbors taking out peace orders on each other.

We will take shoplifting for community conferencing, but we do not take the one where the kid was arrested for “unlawfully propelling his bicycle down the sidewalk.” That becomes a net-widening issue.  We do not want most of those young people in the system to begin with.  So we do not want to create a space for even more people to be engulfed by the system.  We do not believe those cases should be in the system anyhow so we are not going to take them.

You know the system we have is fairly costly.  Interestingly, it is extremely hard to get any numbers from them about what it really costs them to handle a case.

AD: Different people have different pieces of the budget.

LA: Everyone’s got different pieces.  Then there are these buildings that you are sustaining  and the lawyers and the bailiffs and the all the ancillary people to handle the paperwork and it is very hard to get the real costs of all this.  Conservatively, we think that what we do costs about one tenth of going to court.  In Maryland, our department of juvenile services has a $270 million budget.  They give us not a penny.

AD: $270 million just for juveniles?

LA: Yes.  And they use most of that budget, a significant majority of that budget, for kids in what they call the deep end of the system, which is detention.

But the whole reason why we have a separate juvenile system is there is a belief that we should be doing something different with young people than we do with adults. What are we doing, though, is we are just creating a huge younger system of jail.

AD: Your point about budgets speaks to the question of how to improve general awareness of alternative structures like community conferencing.  Can you get traction with an economic argument?

LA: Well the Maryland judiciary has been incredibly responsive to that argument, even though the juvenile justice system is not.  For 15 years the Maryland judiciary has been one of our most consistent and best funders.  They recognize that the adversarial system is not the be all and end all.  Our courts are getting clogged up with many cases for which the adversarial system is probably not the best approach.  So the Maryland judiciary has been incredibly progressive in funding what they call ADR: “Appropriate Dispute Resolution.”  Some people call it, “Alternative Dispute Resolution.”  The judiciary actually has a branch under it called a MACRO which is the Maryland Mediation And Conflict Resolution Office and they have funds to support alternative ways of delivering justice.  This is a fantastic model for the rest of the country.Abramson1

AD: So you have some support from the judiciary that you are not finding with the juvenile justice people administering and maintaining detention centers.

LA:  That’s correct.

AD: It sounds like a real barrier to alternative structures if people are trying to preserve their bureaucratic niche.

LA: Yes.  I do not know if it is a lack of vision.  It is not a lack of money.  But they cannot figure out a way to not spend all that money on 5 percent of young people who are causing some serious issues.  Those young people really do need attention, but the juvenile justice folks are using 90 percent of their budget on that 5 percent of young people.  Other states have found their way out of that, but in Maryland we still haven’t figured out a way to do that, despite countless legislative hearings and department “gap analyses” over the past 20 years focusing on these very issues.

AD: We have been talking about public awareness of a different track for approaching criminal justice.  I have been troubled and puzzled by how the U.S. can be the world champion incarcerator—to use Nils Christie’s terms—and wonder if one possibility is that we do not really want to look too closely at our prisons and juvenile detention centers.   We sense there is some kind of problem over there, but it is not really our problem to deal with.

LA: I would suggest we do that with a lot of things.  Look at how we turned our backs on what the banking industry was doing during the savings and loan scandal.  We turn our backs on so many things.

AD: That is true, but what I am getting at is whether public reluctance to get involved with a morally difficult problem makes it difficult for people who are working in these alternative ways.  How do you break through that?

LA: Yes, that is a big question.  I think it is useful to look at what has happened in other countries.  Even in Australia, where there is a fair amount of restorative justice—and where they really lead the way in many respects.  But there was not a huge breakthrough until a few very well-publicized cases went horribly wrong through the retributive system and people realized there could be another way that could have prevented that.  I think sometimes as human beings we need something that does go horribly wrong to wake people up.

And still, another huge factor is the profit to be gained from the increasing privatization of prisons.  Look, in Florida there is a university that has one of its football stadiums named after a corporation—you know how corporations can name the stadiums?  Well at this Florida university it is named after a private prison company!  Their name is on the football stadium! What is it going to take for people to wake up and see that there is also a huge profit motive behind mass incarceration?  Of course there is also the racializationof mass incarceration—as illustrated by books like The New Jim Crow and others.  But there is also the profit aspect.  The law in Arizona allowing police to stop people to find out if they had identification, and arrest them if they did not, was written by a lobbying group hired by the private prison industry.  That law was written so that more people would be put in prison.

AD: Profit is a pretty significant barrier to alternative structures isn’t it?

LA: I think it is.  And so at this point the bigger question is when are we going to wake up to the fact that the one percent of the people in our country is determining a great deal about how our society is run so that they can benefit from it.

AD: Let’s finish this conversation with a question on how to grow the program.  You have talked about restorative justice in schools last time.  Where does this work well?

LA: Education is starting to embrace this in a big way, which is so encouraging.  The use of what is now termed “restorative practices” in school may surpass the criminal justice system in using it.  There is a whole movement of restorative practices in schools that has come into more prominence in the wake of the failure of post-Columbine zero tolerance policies. We went through this phase in education of these zero tolerance policies, meaning: we will not tolerate any of this, and this, and this, and if you do any of it you get kicked out.

We were not allowing young people to make mistakes.  Because if they did make a mistake they were kicked out of the kingdom.  And so that created more problems because when kids are suspended they are way more likely to get arrested.

So schools around the county are using restorative practices in schools.  It is hearteningly prevalent here and across the world.

AD: Some schools seem to really “get” restorative justice while others do not.  Can you say more about what makes the difference in the schools you work with?Abramson5

LA: It depends on what you value and creating an  approach based on those values.  There are still educators who feel that students should be seen and not heard.  They should listen and we should deposit information into their heads and we should test them and extract that information out to see how much they got.  That pedagogy was created at the turn of the last century, and it was designed to create a pool of good factory workers.  We live in a very different world now, though.  Our current world economy is going to require people to get along and to think for themselves.  That will require us to value the importance of connection and relationships as it relates to learning.

Students learn best from people they like and respect and when they feel supported and understood and heard.  Then they feel better about themselves and they are better able to learn.  And if they make mistakes then we understand that to be part of being human.  We have a fair way to engage the people involved in harmful behavior: to let everybody have a voice, and provide them with a way to figure out how to repair the harm, and to learn how to do it differently so it doesn’t happen in the future.  That is very different than “Shut up and if you act out we will punish you and expel you.”

AD: A school where students are being treated with respect in their classrooms, where their voice is being heard already, that school is a good host for the kind of restorative justice conference you see as valuable.

LA: well, the proof is in the pudding; and there is a huge body of research and anecdotal evidence that restorative practices in schools not only results in lower absenteeism and suspensions, but also in significant increases in instructional time, academic performance, and job satisfaction for teachers!

AD: Restorative justice that really works in a school is a widespread set of practice and attitudes, not an isolated program.

LA: Yes, but it can be implemented in pieces, or it can be embraced to establish an entire restorative school culture.  There are some schools that can just adopt a few things that are restorative, like maybe they agree that every week in every class there is going to be a circle where students can talk about things that are important to them.  That is not the whole school, but they are beginning to implement something where students have a voice and where there can be this sense of respect and responsibility.

AD: You and your colleagues meet from time to time with principals and teachers about restorative justice.  There must be some meetings where you come out and you are in the parking lot and you shake your head and say, “This just isn’t going to work here.”

LA: Let’s not forget that we are asking people to do things differently from how they’ve been done for years and decades.   It is not easy to change direction overnight.  When there are people in leadership positions in the school who want to do it and they are willing to engage the rest of the adults in doing this in a respectful way then our job is easier.   Changing a culture, however, is a bit like trying to turn around a freighter with a rowboat.     It takes a fair amount of patience along with equal parts of tenacity.

AD: I am trying to figure out what you hear from people that makes you think it can work at a particular school or makes you think it will be difficult there.

LA:  We’ve seen it work; and that’s incredibly inspiring.  Still, if you come to a school that is run by a principal who is former military and he clearly believes that we need a lot of structure but that the support piece is not that important and he thinks we just have to have kids acting right and not speaking out, not believing that young people should have a voice, then that will be a tough place place to start this kind of work.

AD: And, on the other side, the times you were in the parking lot and you think, “Wow that was a really good meeting,” what are you hearing from your conversations with those principal and teachers?Abramson6

LA: That there is leadership in that school who is saying, “Oh this is exactly what we need to make this a high quality learning environment.  We really believe that we need the adults in this school to feel more connected with our students in order for them to learn better.  We believe that they need structure but we also believe they need support—because these kids are going through a lot and they need to have a voice—and this approach can give us the tools to actually work day to day, moment to moment, making those connections so that kids can learn better.”

AD: You drew the picture of the disciplinarian who sees the restorative justice program as targeted only to disciplinary issues.

LA: They wouldn’t even probably be interested in the restorative approach

AD:  Right, but they are saying, “I’ve got these problem kids acting out, I’ve got graffiti, so I need a program.  I’m going to call up Lauren Abramson and she’s going to give us a way to fix our problem.” That’s one attitude.  The other perspective you illustrated is one that views it as a part of the learning process: “This is going to help us learn better.”  These people see restorative justice as integrated into the learning environment.

LA: For sure.  Restorative practices includes ways to be proactive about building a culture of connection and engagement, and ways to be responsive to harmful behavior in ways that are fair, inclusive, and give voice to everyone involved.  It’s doing with, not for, or to.  Consider a foursquare grid with two axes. On the X axis there’s support and on the Y axis—the vertical axis—there’s structure.  If you have high structure but low support that is the punitive approach: you are doing to the kids.  If you have low structure and high support that is permissive: you are doing it for them.  If you have low support and low structure you are basically neglecting them,: you are not doing anything.  But if you have high structure and high support that’s the restorative approach: you are doing it with them.

AD: Can you say more about what you mean by structure?

LA: Simple classroom circles have a structure:  Students sit in a circle, they can discuss things that are important to them, everyone has a chance to speak and everyone has a chance to listen, and the group can collectively decide how to address any issues that come up.   That’s a structure.  A community conference is a structure to have a conversation.  Part of that structure would be that we have these three main questions: What happened?  How were you affected by what happened?  What can you do to repair the harm and make sure it doesn’t happen again?  We sit in a circle.  The structure is everybody’s going to get a chance to speak and everyone will get a chance to listen.  That is a huge piece.  The structure is we are going to include everybody who is involved and affected by this.  The structure is when you get caught with the box cutter it is not just you, but we talk to you and find out what is going on here. The question is what has happened and you tell us before the conference that you have been getting beat up by the same four kids for the last three months.  So we get those kids into the circle because they are part of what is going on here.

AD: You would classify the conference as high structure.

LA: Yes.  And high support.  You know, it is also high structure to punish, to say “Look, you brought this box cutter. That is unacceptable and is suspendable under the code of conduct and you’re going to be out of school for twenty five days.” This is a different kind of high structure, but there is no support behind it.

AD: What part of the conferencing is supportive?

LA: You get to bring people in your life you care about and who care about you.  Everybody, even the bully, brings someone they would like to have sitting with them.

And the other supportive piece, ultimately, is for this group to collectively figure out, not how to punish the harmdoer, but how to move forward so this does not happen again and how to repair the harm that has been done.  There were some girls who bullied these two other girls and they broke one of the girl’s eye socket.  The parents agreed to pay the medical bills and the girls who bullied her said, “We want to create a presentation about what happened to us. Let’s go to different schools and tell them about the story of what happened here. It’s over now, we’re done.”

This kind of thing happens all the time.  People who have not encountered this sometimes have a hard time realizing it, but when people make decisions for themselves for how to make this better, that this often becomes a source of incredible support.

AD: Telling those stories could have a cumulative effect on public awareness about how useful alternative structures are.

Community Conferencing in Inner-City Baltimore: Juvenile Justice, Schools & Neighborhoods from Community Conferencing Center on Vimeo.

LA: Well that is the other thing I thought about when you asked what is going to change this—is the fact that we have always done this work believing that stories are what shape our culture.  And we want people out there telling the good stories about how they have resolved their own conflicts and crimes.

For this reason, we do not have blanket confidentiality agreements forbidding people to talk about their experience.  Instead, before they leave the circle they decide for themselves how they want to treat what was discussed at the conference.  Sometimes they agree to keep it all in the circle.  Sometimes they agree to tell anyone who asks that “it’s over, we resolved it really well, and I’m not going to talk about it with you.” Other times people want to go out and share their experience with others, like the bullies and those who were bullied deciding to do presentations at other schools about what happened and how they resolved it.  We do not want to prevent them from telling good stories.  That is how our culture changes.

AD: Sometimes people probably say “Well I’d rather you not say what I told you about so and so…”

LA: Yes, and sometimes they say “You know what, this was great.  Let’s tell people about this.”

Work on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.
Images provided by Lauren Abramson.
More of this interview can be found at the Boston Review.

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