News of the Garrett Chapel vandalism broke early last week. Images of the destruction—the gaping hole and shards of broken glass that remain of the exquisite stained glass window—symbolize the shock and outrage over this egregious act to a chapel with such historical and cultural significance. The estimated $25,000 in damages doesn’t include the priceless emotional and spiritual harm caused to victims and members of our community. When it comes to crimes that capture the public attention, people always ask “Why would someone do something like this?”
From a purely theoretical perspective, there are many reasons for vandalism and property destruction. Economic strains, negative family relationships, and conflict in the neighborhood can all produce anger and frustration. For some, criminal acts of vandalism are ways of coping with these emotions or solving problems. For someone with a strong family relationship, the fear of violating a norm endorsed by people they care about, whose opinions they value, and whose respect they wouldn’t want to lose is a powerful deterrent. In contrast, those with weak relationships are less constrained and in essence freer to violate norms.
Of course, some acts of vandalism merely reflect an attempt to alleviate boredom and experience excitement and thrills. There may be little-to-no forethought on the part of the perpetrator to the costs of their conduct, the consequences of getting caught, or harm to those impacted.
The majority of arrests for vandalism are of people over age 18, and about 40 percent of those are between 18 and 24 years old. Property crimes such as this unfortunately often go unsolved and don’t result in arrest. This means that the risk of getting caught is fairly low, and that threats of fines or incarceration may not be very effective for preventing this type of behavior. But in the event the perpetrator is apprehended, what would justice for the victim and community look like?
I would argue this to be a good case for restorative justice — a non-adversarial and voluntary process through which the victim and the accused are given the opportunity to meet with a facilitator and, in some cases, affected members of the community. Many cities, towns, and schools have adopted this practice as either an alternative to, or in conjunction with, a traditional approach because it has been shown to decrease repeat offending and enhance victim and community satisfaction.
In restorative justice, the goal is not to punish, but to reach an agreement that allows the offender to take responsibility for their actions, make efforts to repair the harm done, and be provided the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community. The process seeks to involve those affected by the crime, and it gives victims a more active role in communicating the impact of the offense to the accused and deciding upon a solution. This is not to say that punishment is ruled out, but this approach recognizes that punitive measures alone are not very effective in reducing the likelihood of future antisocial behavior and too often does not satisfy victim and community needs for healing and restoration.
This vandalism damaged the hearts and spirits of so many in our community. If the Garrett Chapel vandal is ever apprehended, I believe that those affected should have the opportunity to explain that it was far more than just glass that was damaged, and that the victim, community, and perpetrator have a chance to work through the consequences in order to repair the harm done.