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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Importance of Community Mediation

President Obama’s recent decision to release more than 6,000 non-violent offenders from federal prisons has sparked a greater awareness about decreasing the mass incarceration and recidivism rates. Lorig Charkoudain, the Executive Director of Community Mediation from Maryland, and Erica Bridgeford, the Training Director, are offering a realistic approach to managing these tough issues. Students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts Boston had the opportunity to listen to both share their successes in reducing recidivism rates and violence in Maryland through their community mediation work.

Charkoudain was first to speak. She stressed the importance of community mediation to promote a peaceful and cooperative society. Instead of having conflicts that would typically be settled by the state, they would be managed by a trained volunteer mediator. Charkoudain serves as a trainer and provides technical assistance to eighteen community-based mediation programs in Maryland. She has developed partnerships with state agencies such as the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Establishing these partnerships was not easy; Charkoudain explained how she fought hard with the state to receive the government funding needed to train volunteer mediators and expand across the state. Maryland is currently the only state to receive government funding for community mediation.

Charkoudain’s published work provides proof of the successes that result from mediation.  Giving Maryland prisoners the choice of mediation with their loved ones before their release has had a tremendous impact. A two-hour session can decrease their chance of recidivism by 10%; with each additional session, the probability of arrest is reduced by another 7%. Not only do these services reap incredible benefits for convicts, but more importantly, they benefit the community as a whole. If community mediation centers become more prevalent, the police can put a greater focus on tackling violence by allowing non-violent disputes to go through the mediation process instead of the police department. Community mediation would also result in cost and time savings, since it would lessen or eliminate unnecessary police responses and eliminate the effort of booking an individual or going to court. Court costs can be quite high and an obstacle to solving real crimes.

Bridgeford shared her role in training volunteers to become mediators. Her entry into community mediation began from her experience of growing up in a violence-stricken area of Baltimore; she witnessed the deaths of close family and friends from disputes that could have been managed through mediation. Bridgeford noted that the disputes ranged from an argument over a game of checkers to problems like gang retaliation. Her upbringing in violent Baltimore led to her becoming an activist. She wanted to see real social change in Maryland. Bridgeford explained the rigorous process of training volunteers to become mediators. Mediators need to attend a total of 60 hours of class time and they learn vital skills such as listening, questioning, and clarifying perspectives. Bridgeford explained the importance of mediators who reflect the community’s diversity, since this fosters greater comfort and facilitates resolutions. Mediators drawn from the same community have a better understanding of the participants in local disagreements.

It seems that in this age, many of us have a difficult time simply approaching an individual we are in conflict with to come up with a peaceful resolution. As a culture, we prefer to isolate ourselves from the dispute and turn to an “easy way out.” These “easier” solutions are the hierarchy of courts and police which are designed to punish individuals rather than collaboratively develop solutions. For others, the “easy” way out of a dispute might seem to be violence, an unfortunate situation in which guns often play a role. Some think it is cliché or ineffective to approach and converse with each other through a mediator. However, mediation is a good choice, and the courts and police should be the very last resort after all other options have been tried.

When a dispute does not involve the use of healthy conversation to move to a resolution, it grows to infect the community as a whole. The state then either has to intervene to manage a trivial issue or stifle a violent dispute, both of which could have been averted if community mediation was an available option. Court intervention in small non-violent disputes often complicates the issue, wasting time and money.  Charkoudain and Bridgeford’s work provides a great framework and alternative to diminishing the problem of violence and recidivism by pinpointing and mediating the conflict before it escalates. Community mediation should be a widespread, accessible, and encouraged service available across the entire nation. President Obama should take notice of its many successes when initiating criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, the number of community mediation centers in the United States is low. However, Charkoudain and Bridgeford are pressing for their expansion, with more training sessions now being offered in Massachusetts and the New England area.