Campbell Law School Restorative Justice Clinic Director Jon Powell rolled a small, multi-colored octagon around in his hand and explained it was a “talking piece” made for him in 2014 by Terry Hyatt, an inmate on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh. “He made it out of scraps of paper that he had found, and he made his own paint.”
Hyatt had participated in a talking circle moderated by Powell with other death row inmates at the prison. Hyatt said the circles, moderated with a talking piece like the one Hyatt made for Powell, are used to facilitate the conversations.
The circles usually are comprised of about eight inmates, two facilitators and several law students. Each session takes about two hours and meets weekly for about three months.
“They need healing,” Powell said. “Before a person becomes a prisoner, they almost always are victims of something in their family and in their community. So, there’s trauma. Bad behavior is driven by trauma in almost every situation. So, they begin to get in touch with that by listening to everybody else’s story that’s in the circle, by being able to talk about their story in the circle and by getting feedback from people who are in the circle. We always do an affirmation round after somebody tells their story, so it’s very difficult and hard, but it is a very useful process.”
Meeting Victims’ Needs
Powell helped launch the Restorative Justice Clinic at Campbell Law with funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission 20 years ago. Campbell Law now funds the pro bono program.
After graduating from Campbell Law in 1998, Powell worked in Harnett and Wake counties as a criminal defense attorney for five years and became disillusioned with the justice system. “Our traditional system is made to address the offense against the state. What law was broken? Who did it? What punishment do they deserve? It is not designed to meet the needs of the people brought into it,” explained Powell.
“Restorative justice comes alongside our traditional system and tries to help meet the needs of the people who have been affected by crime. So, when crime happens, it’s not just law-breaking; therefore, it’s not just a violation against the state by breaking a state law, but it causes harm to people, relationships and community.”
The clinic also conducts circles in Wake County schools with the goal of stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. Much of the time, the kids get into trouble for fighting. In the circles, “they speak their truth and become more vulnerable with each other and tell more personal kinds of things, getting to know each other on deeper levels. We find that if you can build that kind of relationship in a school environment, kids are much less likely to hurt each other, so you see conflict go down.”
Law Students and The Clinic
Each semester, Powell teaches a three-hour clinical course for upper-level law students, many of whom are considering practicing criminal law. Roughly 18 students work more than 33 hours a semester directly with participants in the circles. Most recently, students have been working at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
At the beginning of the semester, Powell presents a murder case to the class that went through the restorative justice process. “I say, ‘In this case, what does justice require? At the end of the semester after they’ve had all their clinical experiences and all the work in the classroom, I ask the same question again. Now that you’ve had the experiences, what does justice require?’”
The clinic also runs Victim Offender Dialogues, which bring crime victims together to meet one-on-one with the perpetrators. Powell acts as the facilitator with one-on-one meetings with each party before the parties meet face to face.
Victims can request the meetings through the North Carolina Crime Victims Office or through direct contact with the clinic. The sessions are never at the offender’s request, Powell said.
“In serious cases like a murder, it needs to be victim-centered and victim-initiated because it could be offensive to reach out to a victim and say, ‘Your offender wants to say they’re sorry,’” he explained. “A lot of people would say, ‘Hell no.’”
For victims who elect to have the dialogues, it’s a step toward healing, Powell continued. “A lot of victims will say that ‘I didn’t have a voice. The state had it. The state did its thing. I was a tool for the state. I got up when it came time to talk about my impact and I talked about my impact.”
Restorative justice offers victims a voice, Powell added. “Somebody listened to me. Somebody cared about what I thought and what I needed.”
“The system is not designed to meet people’s needs. It’s designed to punish. So, meeting with the perpetrator can bring healing by meeting needs the traditional system is not designed to meet.”
For the offenders, the dialogue is a chance to understand, perhaps for the first time, how their actions have affected another human being, and that makes a difference in future behavior.
Powell is quick to point out the offenders who participate in the circles and the dialogues are not given reduced sentences or other inducements. He estimates that roughly 2,000 offenders and juveniles have participated in one of the clinic’s programs over the past 20 years.
Approximately 85% of cases referred to the clinic are successfully mediated, resulting in both parties coming together for a face-to-face meeting. Less than 5% of juveniles who successfully completed the process between 2004 and 2010 reoffended, while 25% of juveniles who did not complete the process later faced other charges.
‘I’m on Fire’
As the clinic celebrates its 20th anniversary, Powell remains passionate about his work. “Am I still motivated to do this at age 64, 20 years in? Yes, I am,” he said. “I’m on fire about this stuff … to serve people who have been hurt by crime. To help kids stay in school and stay out of the school-to-prison pipeline, to go into prisons and help people who have lived a life of anguish begin to get better, and reconnect and re-establish relationships with family that they have burned bridges with a long time ago and to help others across our state and our country to start programming like this, which we have done, I’m very proud of that.”