Guest blogger Lorenn Walker on reentry planning and strengthening family relationships

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Editor’s Note: Lorenn Walker, JD, MPH, is a health educator and the restorative justice coordinator for Hawai‘i Friends of Justice & Civic Education. She designs, provides, and measures the effectiveness of interventions for people involved with the justice system.

In Hawai‘i we are experimenting with how healing can be a part of the family-inclusive rehabilitation process after people have committed crimes. Hawai‘i Friends of Justice & Civic Education uses a restorative justice approach, which focuses on addressing people’s needs, including what might repair harm caused by criminal activity. It is especially important for children and the parents of incarcerated people to tell their stories. It can also be productive for incarcerated people to describe their transformation.

In the past five years, 58 incarcerated people and their loved ones have participated in Huikahi Restorative Circles, a facilitated group transition-planning process. Additionally, 48 incarcerated men and women have had Modified Huikahi Restorative Circles, without family, attended by supportive incarcerated people. Modified circles address how an incarcerated person might reestablish or develop relationships with their loved ones and work to repair the harm caused to other victims.

The circles use solution-focused brief therapy language and restorative justice principles to address how people can desist from crime and drug use. Huikahi circles are a simple yet elegant process in which family and friends participate and support reentry planning. The restorative justice approach offers incarcerated people an experiential process to learn from wrongdoing and allows everyone involved an opportunity to heal.

Similar to Vera’s strength-based Family Justice Program, the circles assume that supportive family relationships are critical to people’s efforts to desist from crime. Two of the most important factors for reducing criminal behavior are relationships with law-abiding people and a meaningful way to make a living. The Huikahi circles provide opportunities for incarcerated people to repair and strengthen relationships with loved ones and prepare for employment and meet other vital needs. The circles also give incarcerated people a chance to develop and describe a “transformative story” about their past criminal behavior and their ability to behave differently in the future.

The circle process is directed by an incarcerated person who addresses reconciliation with loved ones, and with those positive supporters present, he or she makes a plan to repair harm caused to people who do not participate in the circle. Making amends in this context does not require any contact with victimized people and may be achieved simply by the incarcerated person committing to doing things like “living a sober and crime-free life.”

Preliminary research on circle process results is promising. Among people who have been out of prison two years or more, 23 circle participants who met with loved ones and 22 who did not show lower rates of repeat criminal behavior than a comparison group. The research also indicates that the process promotes healing for loved ones even when someone returns to jail or prison.

Read more about a training on “Reentry and Transition Planning Circles” that Lorenn Walker will co-facilitate March 16-18 in Rochester, New York. You can also contact her at lorenn@hawaii.edu.

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