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Law professor teaches restorative justice, too


Inga Laurent teaches 'regular' law and restorative justice.

By Lillian Piel

Not only does Inga Laurent teach law at Gonzaga University, but also she advocates for restorative justice, which she believes brings resolution to issues that come before the courts by working to find a solution that recognizes the humanity of everyone involved, figures out their needs and holds people accountable, while recognizing everyone's dignity and value.

Inga started as an attorney under the Violence Against Women Act and has been involved in alternative dispute resolution throughout her career because she saw the legal system reinforcing conflict, rather than focusing on healing and looking at a situation holistically.

That's where the theory of restorative justice provides an alternative approach, which changes the focus from reinforcing conflict to addressing conflict through dialogue.

Inga explained restorative justice as a form of justice in which those involved directly in a conflict communicate with each other, so the person who was hurt can explain the full weight of how they were hurt, and the community can work to restore relationship with the person who has fallen outside of the community norms.

"Restorative justice advocates, at their core, believe in human agency and capacity to solve problems, and believe that government can't do that in a fully meaningful way," Inga said.

Restorative justice has been around for as long as humankind, she said. It wasn't until the 1500s when a system of feudal aristocracy began to take place that humanity shifted away from restorative justice and toward the retributive justice system in place today, she said.

Because people used to live in smaller interdependent groups for survival, they would solve conflicts on an individual basis. As societies grew bigger and hierarchies developed, those at the top wanted consistency, and so they wanted to streamline the process of conflict resolution by including a neutral third-party arbitrator, Inga said.

However, this new system of justice forgot about the merit that restorative justice has, she said. While previously the two people who were closest to the problem were also a part of the solution, now people with no direct stake in the conflict are involved in deciding the outcome.

"The value of the restorative justice system is when people are out of alignment with the community norms and values. Restorative justice attempts to bring them back in," she said. "We have to realign the person's values with the community by letting them hear how much they hurt the injured party, letting them hear and feel the full weight of the community and the communal support behind what they have done and what that meant."

The first time Inga formally studied restorative justice work was when she received a Fulbright scholarship and spent nine months in 2017 in Jamaica researching as the country implemented a nationwide restorative justice system.

Going into the research project, she had an agenda of what she wanted her project to look like, although it ended up being much harder than she expected for multiple reasons.

The culmination of her research project was "From Retribution to Restoration: Implementing Nationwide Restorative Justice Initiatives - Lessons From Jamaica," which was published, turned into a series of reflections on what it looks like when restorative justice is implemented in a community on a nationwide scale and lessons society can learn from it.

Inga also spoke to the importance of understanding the underlying theory of restorative justice, because one must understand the theory to be able to effectively implement the system.

Currently, she works to operationalize restorative justice in different organizations and situations.

For example, she works with Spokane Public Schools on restorative justice projects and advises in one-time situations such as working with Oregon's criminal justice commission, which recently has been trying to implement restorative justice in its systems. She also teaches community members about restorative justice and how it works.

"I do a lot of RJ (restorative justice) 101, because the most important thing is trying to get people to hear that it's something that old but new in our age, and so much of it is proclaiming the gospel of it," Inga said.

It is important that people understand the theory behind restorative justice so they can hold true to its core values when implementing it, she said.

However, Inga explained that teaching at a law school often reinforces the status quo because we have to teach what the law currently is and that can isolate students who view the law as a vehicle of creating change.

Because restorative justice does not have a formal home as an academic discipline, it can be challenging to teach about its tenets, she said.

In the classroom, her goal is to prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the legal profession, "equipping them with tools for honest and critical assessments of systems and people," she said.

In addition to her work in the community, Inga also teaches about restorative justice at Gonzaga's Law School. She teaches a class on restorative justice and places students who are particularly interested in restorative justice on projects in the community where they are needed.

"It's my joy and privilege to be in that space where we can propose an alternative, where we can look critically at the current system as it exists and unpack it. I bring that lens with me into my regular classes but especially enjoy spending a whole semester doing that in restorative justice," she said.

Inga received her juris doctorate in 2005 from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland after receiving her bachelor's in political science in 2002 from Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. She was manager of student affairs at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law from 2008 to 2010 and was a staff attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, providing holistic civil legal services to victims of domestic violence.

She has been a member of the Gonzaga community since 2010.

Influenced by Bible stories she read in Catholic schools up to eighth grade—in Brooklyn, NY, and Cambridge, Ohio—Inga still holds to the radical Jesus who cared about people being in right relationship and going to the heart when interceding in problems.

"The best chance at resolving conflicts is not to let rumor, conjecture or assumptions impede action," she said, adding that modern iterations of restorative justice come from the Quaker religion and belief of being in right relationship with people.

She has attended non-denominational Christian and Unitarian Universalist churches, but focused on the heart of Jesus' message to care deeply about people's wellbeing, which she believes is a value that transcends all religions.

She believes it's all about seeing the true person, figuring out their needs, holding folks accountable and allowing them to reconcile with the person they harmed, as well as recognizing everyone's dignity and value.

Inga also believes restorative justice is needed in our world, because we are deeply troubled as a society, and she admits that it is hard to say that because many don't like to hear that.

"I believe if we truly love something, we are honest and reflective about it. The only way to help something we love to grow is to treat it and care for it and be honest with it," Inga said.

With a father who is Haitian and a mother who is German and Czech, Inga grew up with the languages, foods and perspectives of those cultures, and sees herself as "a merger of the clash of cultures and values."

Aware that western ways are one way to do justice and traditional ways of other cultures are another way, she advocates for racial equity in terms of both addressing racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system and diversifying the legal profession.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2021