Restorative circles open dialogue and healing between Brazilian institutions and gangs
By Molly Slothower
12 June 2009 [MEDIAGLOBAL]: When Dominic Barter enters the favelas that are home to the gangs that control about 25 percent of Rio de Janeiro, he doesn’t do it wearing riot gear and a megaphone. He does it armed with questions.
Barter introduced restorative justice to the government and the gangs of Brazil in 2004, and the encounter has opened up possibilities for both that once seemed unthinkable.
Home to two of the most dangerous cities in the world, Brazil is infamous for its gangs. A crackdown on crime in the 1990s flooded prisons to almost three times of the capacity that the prison system could handle. And the prisons themselves have become the base of gang operations.
Gangs have always posed a particular problem for law enforcement. To counteract gangs’ advanced organization and constant streams of resources, policing gang activity often looks more like guerrilla warfare than police work.
Rampant poverty in countries such as Brazil makes turning to gang activity for protection and support seem like the only option for countless children. Today, most of the deaths of Brazilian adolescents are caused by murder, which is usually gang-related.
The work Barter has initiated with restorative circles brings victims, offenders, community members, and the justice system together to address crimes that occur. After intensive preparation ensuring all parties feel heard, a facilitated circle takes place. It is based on carefully designed, penetrating questions that recognize the needs of all participants, and results in agreements based on consensus.
“I recognize in [gang activity] a lot of initiative and leadership, and a real desire to do something in local communities that will make a difference for those communities,” Barter told MediaGlobal. “I make it very clear when I engage with someone who is involved in gangs that I’ve not come there to suggest that they change their behavior.”
“I’ve also not come there because I support their behavior. I’ve come there because, for some reason, there is something going on in that community that diminishes people’s well-being,” Barter explained.
Over 90 percent of the agreements made this way were successfully fulfilled last year. Courts and communities alike are finding the approach to be much more successful in opening up communication between one another. In many of the communities it impacts, reported incidents have increased, but actual court cases are reduced by about 50 percent due to use of the restorative justice track.
“The principle of establishing human connections between people…informs anything that I do in a gang context,” Barter said. “If I want to change something in that community so there is increased well-being, my ability to do that will be determined by the quality and strength of the human connection between me and those other people.”
True dialogue is the most important factor in building the relationships that Dominic facilitates. He quotes thinker Martin Buber, describing dialogue as “a conversation whose result is unknown, because it has not been predefined or imposed by a single source of power. Rather, in dialogue power is shared.”
This requires institutions to let go in a sense, not turning a blind eye on crime, but rather recognizing that they do not have solutions that will end it. Rather they must become partners with communities in looking for solutions that address the needs of both sides.
And now that governments like Brazil’s have so thoroughly lost control of gang problems, many are embracing this approach wholeheartedly and changing their views of gangs. Barter explained that the government realized they really had no channel of communication going with the gangs, and that a strictly adversarial power struggle was not going in the government’s favor.
“There is a level of willingness of people in institutional settings to consider things that when I brought them up ten or fifteen years ago, they just looked at me like I was from Mars,” said Barter. “There is a kind of openness that wasn’t there before.” The key, Barter explained, was to find ways to show institutions that thinking outside the box is in their own best interest.
“The first thing to do is to create concrete benefits for everybody that is involved. Once people have something invested in working that way, then they’re ability to think a little bit more laterally, a little bit more flexibly, about their institutional role. They come to the table with more willingness to dialogue and change,” Barter said.
This willingness to be flexible is changing lives and giving young people options they never knew they had.
In a recent essay, Barter described the life-changing impact of a restorative circle on a young repeat offender. After the boy had gone through the experience, he told Barter, “As well as everything else that happened I found out I have needs. I didn’t know that until I heard myself saying them. So, I didn’t know before why I did what I did.”