A unique program that brings crime victims and convicted murderers together to share their stories is an effective way to increase understanding and empathy, and it also reduces recidivism, according to a report on prison Restorative Justice.
Salinas Valley Californian reporter Chelcey Adami describes an encounter last year between Angie Ortega, the mother of murdered Lorraine Ortega, 23, and Johnny Placencia, 18, a man who murdered Manuel Ortiz, 21, in a gang-related stabbing. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.
Ortega and Placencia are facilitators in prison Restorative Justice programs. Ortega is the president of the Monterey County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, Inc., and Placencia chairs the rehabilitative group called Life CYCLE for inmates at the Correctional Training Facility prison in Soledad. The two coordinate visits between members of Parents of Murdered Children and inmates in the Life CYCLE program to educate inmates about how losing a loved one to murder affects families.
“We talk about our loved ones, we share. Sometimes they will talk to us about the crimes they committed, how they feel…It has completely changed my mind of what a prison is like, because I’m seeing the work of the young men in the prison and actually talking about their crime,” Ortega says. “I’m seeing the impact of how it’s affecting them.”
Placencia says his group is about motivating inmates to assume personal responsibility and to make an effort to change. The effect is powerful when inmates hear decades later how parents still feel the loss, when they learn that the pain never goes away: that’s “insight we can’t read in a book.”
A study entitled “The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis” by Jeff Latimar, Craig Dowden and Danielle Muise, concludes that the use of restorative justice practices, such as this victim-offender dialogue, lowers recidivism and increases restitution.
Jennie Burciaga, executive of the Monterey County Restorative Justice Partners, Inc., reports that juvenile offenders who voluntarily participate in victim-offender dialogues have a recidivism rate of 13 percent, compared to a control group that had a 65 percent recidivism rate.
“What we’re finding is when empathy, humanizing or connectedness is involved, [juvenile offenders] involved in these processes are significantly less likely to reoffend,” she said.
Jennifer Schafer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings, agrees. She says that most of the time, inmates who commit these crimes are not thinking about other people. They’re usually very angry and in a phase of life where they’re focused inward. “Part of the transformation we see is people actually getting to a place where they have empathy for others. If they’re in a place in their life to make that transition, those programs can really help open their eyes to what they did.”
The state currently houses 35,000 lifers. In 2016, 728 former lifers were released due to major changes to parole laws as well as rehabilitative programs like Restorative Justice that transform prisoners’ lives.
“I see this as education, prevention, where we’re giving a voice to our loved ones, the victims that they left behind and the victim survivors,” Ortega said. “If they are released some day, they will have that empathy in their hearts and understand what murder does to victim survivors, to the families, and their own families, and spare a life.”