How restorative justice can amplify the voices of those affected by traffic violence and help break the cycle of dangerous behaviors in our communities.
“I was on my bicycle stopped at a traffic light in Bay Ridge, waiting for the light to turn green, when a black SUV rounded the corner on the wrong side of the street. It hit me and broke my leg into five pieces,” Jeffrey Heller recounted.
While he has thankfully overcome the worst of his physical injuries, Heller has found true healing more elusive.
“As a victim, you want the perpetrator to realize what they did wrong. You want an apology — a commitment that they won’t repeat their behavior. That your suffering will help someone else,” he said.
Heller is one of the more than 2,500 New Yorkers who are killed or seriously injured in traffic crashes every year. He is also one of thousands of victims and loved ones who will never have an open discussion with the driver responsible for the crash.
“When we met at a deposition, the driver who hit me never said she had done anything wrong,” he explained. “Never mind who was at fault. She didn’t even acknowledge what I had gone through.”
Interactions like these are common, but they do not achieve justice or any semblance of closure or healing for the parties involved. The notion that justice entails more than just punishment is a central tenet of the restorative justice movement. Unlike the traditional adversarial judicial process, restorative justice focuses on people, relationships, and closure where possible. Instead of conventional punishments, like fines or jail time, restorative justice programs often prescribe alternative interventions that emphasize healing and provide an opportunity for offenders to learn from their mistakes so as to not repeat them. In some cases, traditional punishments and restorative interventions are combined.
Restorative justice offers an important new perspective
Restorative justice principles trace their roots to Indigenous societies, including First Nations peoples of Canada, Native American tribes, and the Maori of New Zealand. In 1990, Howard Zehr’s exploration of these roots in Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice prompted a flurry of interest in restorative justice among scholars, governments, and NGOs. In the United States, restorative justice programs often focus on the juvenile justice system, but a growing number of jurisdictions have begun applying the approach to cases involving adult offenders.
Families for Safe Streets (FSS), Transportation Alternatives (TA), and the Center for Court Innovation — together with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and New York City Council Member Brad Lander — have been leading the effort to incorporate restorative justice principles into the judicial process for traffic offenses. In 2015, they formed a working group to discuss creating a restorative justice program for traffic offenses. They then piloted the Driver Accountability Program at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, an arm of the Center for Court Innovation. It has since expanded to court systems in four boroughs.
According to Amanda Berman, project director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the program currently focuses on people who have been convicted of driving-related offenses, but excludes felony offenses and typically does not involve cases where someone was injured in a crash. Drivers participate in a 90-minute facilitated discussion, usually in lieu of a traditional fine or sentence. Since the program focuses on offenses for which there are no identifiable victims, participants watch videos of victims recounting their experiences with traffic violence.
“The curriculum really puts a human face on these issues that we’re talking about in the group,” Berman said.
After hearing from survivors of traffic violence — including people whose children, partners or siblings were killed — program participants are tasked with identifying driving behaviors that they will work to change.
“Through this program, we are trying to break the cycle of traffic violence and future justice system involvement by making our streets safer one driver at a time,” Berman said.
By focusing on cases where no one was injured, the program aims to avert future harmful crashes by educating drivers about the harm that results from dangerous driving.
“Under the traditional judicial process, if no one was injured, it can just feel like a traffic ticket; you pay a fine, and the case is over,” she explained. “What people aren’t thinking about is that they could have killed someone. We want participants to think about their own loved ones on the road every day and how important it is that they come home safely. And from an equity standpoint, we also need to provide alternatives to fines and fees in our court system.”
While a formal impact evaluation of the program’s success is still in progress, preliminary findings suggest that the program has helped drivers to change their behavior and reduced repeat offenses.
Moreover, offenders who have participated in the program overwhelmingly agree that hearing personal stories challenged them to think critically about their driving behavior in ways that they would not have otherwise.
“It kind of shocked us at the beginning, how often we would hear from participants: ‘You know, this is so great. Every driver should go through this. It shouldn’t take an arrest for someone to have the benefit of hearing victims’ experiences.’ So that told us that we were on to something that was resonating with these drivers,” Berman said.
Giving a voice to victims of traffic violence
FSS organizer and TA staff member Chana Widawski said that another critical focus of restorative justice is giving victims and survivors of traffic violence a voice in the justice process since current processes do not provide such an outlet.
“For those who’ve been directly impacted by traffic violence, there is often a sense of powerlessness in the traditional justice system,” she explained. “This program offers an opportunity for their voices to be heard and provides a sense of agency — a sense that they are playing a bigger role in preventing future pain for others.”
Berman said the Center for Court Innovation is now working with Families for Safe Streets to develop a new arm of the Driver Accountability Program that will respond to cases involving crash victims who were seriously injured or killed. She stressed that victims’ participation in the program will be entirely voluntary, and acknowledges that not all individuals will want to participate.
“Most victims agree that the current justice process does not feel empowering to them,” she said. “That being said, not everyone would want to sit down with the driver that seriously injured them or killed their loved one.”
Expanding the restorative justice approach
Berman said that future expansions of the program would center the voices of victims, both to ensure that victims heal and that drivers are better able to recognize the harm caused by their behaviors.
“True accountability means having to recognize the impact of what your actions are and taking active steps to repair that harm. Sitting in a jail cell does not allow for that. What we’re hoping to do is to use our restorative framework to create an intervention that can be used to respond to more serious cases where someone has been harmed themselves or lost a loved one.” — Amanda Berman
Berman said that, under a restorative approach, resolutions for cases involving more serious harm would expand on the traditional system’s current arsenal of jail, fines, and community service.
“What we’re thinking about is: how can the defendant play an active role in helping to repair harm? That might be an apology, agreeing not to drive again, or playing a role in educating others about traffic safety. The sky’s the limit in terms of how creative you can be in trying to repair that harm.”
Widawski said that using victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches in the design of the program is critical for amplifying victim and survivor voices and providing support for them throughout the process.
“There is a power in personal stories. Drivers have to hear the voices of people who have been personally impacted to begin understanding the harm their behavior has caused,” she added.
Looking toward the future, the organizers of the Driver Accountability Program are optimistic that restorative justice approaches will be more widely adopted in light of this program’s success.
Reflecting on his own experience navigating the justice system after getting struck in Bay Ridge, Heller identified this sense of closure as a notably missing component of the justice process.
“It would have been nice for me to have had the opportunity to hear the driver who hit me apologize so that I could tell her that I forgive her — that I’ve also made mistakes driving. Psychologically, people need to face their tormentors, and forgive them.”
Berman echoed this sentiment.
“This effort is about providing options and redefining what accountability really means,” she said.