TRENDSPOTTING – Life in Six Degrees

Stephen Carter

During the holiday season most Americans tend to stop, if only during halftime of a contest waged on an acre of very expensive real estate, to acknowledge that we are truly connected to each other through a tradition of hope.

In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, David Brooks commented that “human beings are wired to form attachments with each other” and that nations are held together by shared beliefs. In the best of times, we translate our hopes to resolutions that are conceived to defend, change or sustain our individual and collective priorities.

So much of our ability to achieve these well-intended resolutions depends on the strength of the attachments that we have formed. Most Americans have heard of the actor Kevin Bacon, who once stated that through an application of the “six degrees” theory, he has worked with every actor in Hollywood. Actually, this theory dates back to a 1929 short story called “Chains” by the Hungarian writer Karinthy Frigyer, but Bacon’s statement about how closely linked we all are through our attachments gave a contemporary interpretation to the theory.

It just so happens that Bacon is also linked to my local community, because he has been filming his latest cinematic endeavor called “Death Sentence” outside my office, as well as a couple of blocks from my home in Columbia, S.C.

I have thought about this six-degree theory a good bit with respect to the criminal justice system, and restorative justice in particular.

In effect, restorative justice is all about the links and attachments that are the basis of the six-degrees theory. Restorative justice seeks to repair harm through a cooperative process that includes all stakeholders. Think about the six degrees that typically characterize involvement with the criminal justice system and contemplate where financial and human resources are best invested:

  1. Every criminal experienced some time in the care of a parent or guardian where the first exposure to values occurred. Whatever the basis of these values, this is home.
  2. In time, a criminal establishes attachments through a neighborhood where the notion of shared values, aims, or pursuits is learned and applied. These neighborhood attachments form what the economist Adam Smith referred to as “morality of intense sociability”. For the criminal, the neighborhood reinforces the choice of deviant behavior.
  3. The third degree of the pattern of criminality involves “the catchers.” Ultimately, the criminal’s behavior results in time spent with individuals within the system who capture, charge and contain the offender. At the third degree, the number of stakeholders increases exponentially.
  4. By the fourth degree, the criminal is deep into the system of criminal justice and far removed from the parents who helped instill core values. Life is defined by “the keepers.” In some instances, the keepers are the criminal’s only contact with the outside world.
  5. If the criminal is fortunate, the fifth degree involves “influencers” who help the criminal discover or re-discover values that will correct rather than corrupt. Influencers follow no particular profession, culture, gender or creed, but seek to illuminate a more positive pathway.
  6. The sixth degree is the community to which 95 percent of offenders return. Each degree has either prepared the offender for a successful return to community or, if not, the process begins all over again but with more complicated consequences.

Most of us would accept that the first degree represents an investment of the most time, but relatively speaking, the least financial investment of the six degrees. By the third degree of criminality, time is no longer an investment but a sentence (literally) and the financial requirements to extract the time from the criminal increases dramatically to the tune of more than $20 billion annually in the United States.

Every degree offers the opportunity for positive intervention, but for the retribution model of “correcting,” the largest financial investment is made in the third and fourth degrees and that is to primarily assure the safety of the community the offender left behind. Unfortunately, with the retributive model, little has been done by the fifth degree to alter patterns of criminality. So, there should be little amazement that programs such as “re-entry” face an almost impossible task of preparing the offender to return “home” to the community.

Restorative justice is far more than teaching the offender how to prepare a resume, interview for a job, or balance a checkbook. The individuals that are part of the first and second degrees follow the offender through all six degrees so that the final return to community is a homecoming. Although overly simplistic in this illustration, restorative justice expects stakeholders at each stage to accept part of the responsibility to restore justice to the individual and to the community that was harmed.

Repairing harm should not be limited to the last two degrees of a criminal’s return to the community.

This magazine has a focus on the constructed correctional community. If restorative justice is a method and not just a fluffy phrase, then systems and structures must begin to reflect what harm reduction and stakeholder accountability acts and looks like.

Just for a start, all publicly sponsored and code enforced housing would adopt the CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) principles. Community policing would be strengthened through district stations that actually have community-meeting rooms. Courthouses would focus more on mediation rooms than ceremonial courtrooms, and jury deliberation rooms would allow deliberants to consider harm and not simply retribution. Correctional facility design would return to the impressive work of Fred Moyer and Fred Powers of the National Clearinghouse for Correctional Architecture who argued for smaller-sized, community-based institutions. This is a sea change for a system designed to sustain the status quo.

At various times during 2007, this column will be devoted to a search for spatial matches to the restorative justice concept. Although the restorative justice term has been a part of the jargon for years, justice architecture has not yet enshrined the concept in spatial forms. Countless examples exist of the retributive model, but few are available that demonstrate how the buildings that shelter justice under a restorative concept should appear.

One of the enduring principles that Kevin Bacon’s famous father stresses time and again in his book “Design of Cities” is that our communities should reflect the best of our value systems and the inherent sociability of human beings. Shouldn’t the same be said of the places and spaces that embody our system of justice?

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.