Seema Gajwani

Transforming prosecutorial culture through in-house restorative justice programs.

Location:

Washington, D.C.

Superpower:

Empathy

Favorite book:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Challenge:

The United States criminal justice system is weighed down by mass incarceration, racial disparities, and trauma. Victims of crimes are often disempowered or absent from the justice process. The existing incentives, feedback systems, and culture that prosecutors work in prevent many models of restorative justice programs from taking hold. When cases do happen to be referred to restorative justice processes run by nonprofits, prosecutors miss the opportunity to see, first-hand, this powerful alternative to trying cases.

Strategy:

In Washington D.C., Seema has launched the first restorative justice program housed within a prosecutor’s office, in which restorative justice facilitators engage with prosecutors. Restorative Justice (RJ) is guided by the principle that, given community support, people can solve their own problems. Developed as an alternative to court trials, RJ conferences are victim-led and include a tight-knit circle of family members, community leaders, faith leaders, prosecutors, and RJ facilitators who come together to support both sides in working towards a solution. Unlike nonprofit restorative justice programs, RJ conferences allow prosecutors to witness the transformative process, ultimately shifting the way they try cases and address crime. Early analysis showed that 80% of participants were not re-arrested within a year, and prosecutors increasingly refer cases to RJ conference. Seema and her team are building a model that can work in prosecutors’ offices around the country, leading a system-wide shift in prosecutorial culture and stemming the tide of mass incarceration.

Greatest victory:

“The Restorative Justice Program works alongside juvenile prosecutors at the Washington DC Office of the Attorney General. After two years in operation and over 175 restorative justice referrals by prosecutors in this year’s budget cycle, the office made a request to the city council for an increase in funding to hire more restorative justice facilitators and decline to increase the number of juvenile prosecutors.”

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