Recently a group of Willamette students, headed by Leah Olson (‘20) and advised by Professor Melissa Michaux, have worked to create an organization called the Restorative Justice Coalition at Willamette University.
This is a new club on campus is looking for ways they can change the justice system and how it’s looked at. Their advisor, Professor Michaux, is an Associate Professor of politics who specializes in teaching American politics and public policy, and her work in these areas has led to her teaching a “Reforming Criminal Justice” class, which was the basis for the creation of this club.
Michaux’s interest in criminal justice stemmed from her expertise in welfare policy and she discussed how that led to a closer look at correction systems. Michaux said, “I teach a welfare policy class that looks at the ways we design poverty programs to bring about control of poor women. But then I started thinking about where are the poor men and the answer was in prison.” These two systems of control, welfare programs for women and incarceral systems for men, are as Michaux states, “twin systems of control.”
These are big issues, as Michaux points out that “about 80 percent of all criminal defendants are indigent.” Which means that most people who are incarcerated are poor, and that has led to over 2.3 million people being locked up in the United States.
The incarceration of these peoples has led to ripple effects on their families and communities because of the often blurred line between victim and offender. Michaux states, “A lot of the men I meet in prison have been victims of crime or childhood abuse or trauma, and many have been in the foster care system or have incarcerated parents. Their crimes generate new victims. It’s kind of just a messy tangled mess. Our current criminal justice system just doesn’t do a good job of intervening in that mess. It does a good job of locking people up.”
At the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), they call it “restorative justice.” Michaux said she believes it is named this because, “restorative justice is a kind of critique and call for reformation of the criminal justice system. It argues that the current system doesn’t meet the needs when a crime occurs.”
This is why the coalition is working towards educating the public. These systems aren’t always looked after well enough. This is something Michaux teaches in her class, and they explore causes of mass incarceration, the pathways into prison and the consequences of imprisonment. These factors are important for understanding problems such as the school or prison pipeline, which as the ACLU stated is a “disturbing national trend where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
However, there have been some efforts to combat this system. Michaux explained that the coalition is going to start working with the Mile of Choices program. This is a program that is involved with the African-American club inside the OSP, which brings youth to prison to talk about making better choices. They also visit Willamette, the capitol and then visit the prison that is a mile away from campus. Michaux ended her statement about the Restorative Justice Coalition by saing, “there’s a lot of good work to be done.”
Leah Olson, a junior politics major, also talked about how she got involved with OSP and the Restorative Justice Penitentiary, “In high school I became interested in corrections-based policy because I saw the inherent connections between our budget, our state budget and the role that corrections and education play as components within that budget. So I saw it necessary, if I wanted to work on education policy, that I would also have to tangentially work on corrections-based policy.”
Her interest in this policy led her to obtaining a Green Fund grant to run the corrections-based policy summit in order to, as she said, “bring players to the table for policy issues on a state level.” With Willamette’s ties to the capitol, Olson said “it was a great way to get Willamette involved.”
This involvement has led to a bigger interest in the coalition. Olson said they’re “opening up this semester for opportunities to go into the OSP in a volunteer capacity to help work on a ground level on these issues. But we also see this as a means to help further policy. So change through policy and giving students the opportunity to engage with change on that level capacity.”
Olson said that her hope for the Restorative Justice Coalition is “to really bring awareness to the injustices built within our many systems of punishment. Not only through the criminal justice system but in our daily lives.”
When asked what the Restorative Justice Coalition is, Olson responde, “I would almost pose it as a question. When harms are done within our many communities, do we want to approach it from a mindset of punishment or from a mindset of reconciliation and forgiveness? Because that’s kind of what Restorative Justice gets at, because currently our system is focused on punishment. But I think our work is trying to foster empathy so that individuals can more comprehensively look at why a crime was committed. If someone robs a store, is it because they were trying to be malicious or is it because they’re hungry?”