Vastine and Newman teach a course at the College of Law in restorative practices, a process that has been gaining ground in the legal community as an effective alternative dispute resolution possibility.
It’s a process that encourages both communicating and listening in a safe, responsible and effective manner. The process works whether the participants are merely discussing ideas or options, or are resolving conflicts. “Restorative practices are about helping to create safe space for whatever the dialogue might be,” said Vastine.
The philosophy has roots in many ancient and indigenous cultures. The process first gained currency in Illinois in connection with criminal and juvenile matters, and is often spoken of in terms of victims and offenders and, occasionally, forgiveness. Yet, as Vastine and Newman contend, the process is much, much more.
Over the past year restorative justice has received coverage in the New York Times, on the “The Today Show” and internationally. Yet Vastine and Newman, both lawyers, have been working with restorative practices for many years. Vastine is principal at the Stone Vastine Group, and Newman is the program administrator for the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Resource Section of the Cook County Circuit Court. In 2008, Vastine and Newman worked with Judge Martha Mills, also a longtime restorative practitioner, to utilize the restorative process in select cases at the Parentage and Child Support Court of the Cook County Circuit Court.
The results were extremely successful. With the goal of offering exposure to restorative practices to a greater audience as well as providing future restorative practitioners for the Parentage Court, Vastine and Newman joined Barbara Hausman, executive director of the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center, to formulate a law school course.
They worked to create a program that would prepare students to lead circles, a restorative practice. The resulting course at DePaul was the first of its kind in the nation. Vastine and Newman said class readings span from historical, to indigenous text, to critiques of restorative justice and challenges, and often work within the framework of current events. The course is anchored by guest speakers—an eclectic mix by design—giving students an opportunity to explore different topics while sitting in circle.
Students sit in circle with judges, former gang leaders, individuals who have benefitted from the process and those who have supported the restorative movement.
“Some of our speakers have had experiences that the rest of us have only read about,” said Vastine. “We’ll pass the talking piece around, Peter and I will ask certain questions and it kind of evolves, because circle is organic. As the dialogue evolves, so do the questions and so does the sharing. Students recognize this is an opportunity to be exposed to issues in a really personalized and humanized way.”
Vastine and Newman feel aspiring lawyers can benefit from a deeper understanding of the human side of law and the ability to effectively communicate.
“What a client cares about is not merely ‘what can you do for me,’ but also ‘do you know my story? Can you recognize me as an individual with all my humanness and needs and desires?’” said Newman. “A knowledge of restorative justice and exposure to its practice is a great aid—and skill set— with clients, and also with other attorneys or persons involved in any legal matter.”