Summer 2017

The peacemaker

As founder of the U’s Restorative Justice Center, Mark Umbreit has made a career of bringing people together

Mark Umbreit says restorative justice views crime as a wound within the community that must be tended with accountability and healing, not just punishment.
Photography by Scott Streble

On a hot summer Saturday, seven U of M students sit in a circle in the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing’s sunlit meditation room. They close their eyes as Professor Mark Umbreit leads them in breathing exercises. Umbreit speaks slowly and softly, sometimes barely above a whisper, as he talks about using breath to be present, relax, and focus. 

The students pass a stone with the word “peace” etched into it around the circle. When holding the stone, they tell about their week and how they feel about it. Each speaks without interruption as the others absorb the words. Focusing, sharing stories, listening deeply—all are elements of restorative justice, a concept Umbreit, a social work professor and founder of the U’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (the first of its kind in an academic institution), has been cultivating since the 1970s. 

The students in his Peacebuilding Through Mindfulness class not only learn about the process but  also gain insight into conflict or challenges in their own lives.

From classroom to community

For Umbreit, bringing people—often crime victims and perpetrators—together to talk, listen, and make amends has been his life’s work. “It’s a different way of viewing and responding to crime,” he says, explaining that it’s a shift from the “trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em” approach that has long defined the criminal justice system. “It’s about accountability and healing.”

Umbreit, whose center has been supported by the School of Social Work and private funding, has taken this concept to 23 countries, facilitating conversations and teaching others to use restorative justice not only in the criminal justice system but also in schools, faith communities, workplaces, and neighborhoods. 

He has watched it go from being an idea even he was skeptical about to being endorsed by the United Nations and European Union. Today, 36 states have restorative justice protocols, and the idea has gotten air-play from Oprah, ink in the New York Times, and placement in a Jodi Picoult novel. “It’s not mainstream yet,” Umbreit says. “But it’s knocking on the door.”

Story power

Restorative justice is now being used by communities dealing with hate crimes, intolerance, and political violence.

Umbreit, who came of age during the Civil Rights movement, was a community organizer with the Quakers in Indiana in 1971 when he was asked to help a group of ex-convicts and community members open a halfway house in Michigan City, site of the state prison. Through that work, he connected with the Mennonite Center in Elkhart, Indiana. The Mennonites wanted to test an idea developed in Canada: promoting healing by bringing together victims and perpetrators of minor property crimes. 

“At that point, I had had a very earthy exposure to victimization,” says Umbreit, whose own life was once threatened by an ex-convict. After he saw the power of the process, he extended his efforts to survivors of attempted homicide and families of homicide victims. His first violent crime case, in 1991, involved the family of a U of M student who had been murdered. 

“In those years, there was not a single jurisdiction anywhere in the world that had administrative protocol to allow victims of severe crime to meet with the person who killed their loved one or nearly killed them,” he says. Umbreit broke new ground, and that work became the focus of his research. 

In his conversations and writings, Umbreit talks about the transformation that happens during the meetings. He remembers a mother meeting her son’s murderer and how it brought them together almost as family. “It doesn’t come to that easily,” he says. But restorative justice does improve victim satisfaction, and as Umbreit found in a 2003 study of juvenile offenders, it reduces recidivism as well. 

Restorative justice is now being used by communities dealing with hate crimes, intolerance, and political violence. In the Twin Cities, Umbreit initiated and facilitated the first Palestinian-Jewish dialogues and founded the Muslim Restorative Justice Engagement Project. He gathered community feedback that led St. Paul’s Police-Community Internal Affairs Commission to address concern about subtle intimidation. And he has taught state supreme court justices, school principals, and leaders from Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Liberia, and Kurdistan to facilitate conversations.

Slowing down, speeding up

As a 27-year veteran of the U’s faculty, Umbreit is busier than ever, even though he’s attempting to wind down his teaching career. He plans to rely on his colleagues and funding from outside contracts and private donors to carry on his work. “If we can raise $50,000 to $100,000 a year, we can keep going on some level,” he says. 

Looking back on his experience with restorative justice, Umbreit believes there has never been a greater need for it than now. “You would think I would be depressed or cynical because for the last 30 years, I’ve been hanging out with highly traumatized people,” he says. “But I leave with hope—hope in the enormous strength and resiliency of the human spirit.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.