Penn State Wilkes-Barre faculty member and student present at conference

LEHMAN, Pa. — A Penn State faculty member and student recently presented ideas for integrating happiness and restorative justice at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), held virtually in April with the theme “Reforming and Transforming Criminal Justice.”

The presenters included Jeremy Olson, assistant professor of criminal justice and interim program coordinator of criminal justice, and junior Brad Killian from Penn State Wilkes-Barre, and Rebecca Sarver, lecturer of human services at Elmira College.

The philosophy of restorative justice is embedded within the criminal justice curriculum at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. According to Olson, restorative justice is different from punitive systems of justice in the way it seeks to personalize the harms of offending.

“Our normal, punitive response includes a cold view of victim as a witness to the crimes committed by a bad offender,” Olson said. “Governmental punishments are somewhat collective and ritualistic, where each type of crime gets the same kind of punishment, regardless of the needs of the victim or the offender. The result is too often more crime, more harm and heavy dissatisfaction with the system.”

Instead of offering what could be considered cold and collective responses to crime, restorative justice seeks to repair harms to people related to crime, according to Olson. To do this, a set of restorative practices helps identify specific ways in which each person was harmed by the offense and what they think they need to repair those harms.

“Once those harms are identified, the people impacted by the harms decide who will be responsible for repairing them,” Sarver said. “This most often results in a very personalized and individual response to fixing the damage, where both the victim and offender are in agreement with how that will happen.”

Unique to the restorative approach offered by this trio is the idea of identifying harms to all people impacted by an offense based on models of happiness. Studied in both positive criminology and positive psychology, happiness researchers believe there are about ten or 11 primary drivers of happiness among all humans, or what they call domains of happiness.

“These domains can differ in importance from person to person, and from time to time in a person’s life, but it is interesting that the same ones tend to come up across time, culture and location throughout the world,” Olson said. “And, how people go about achieving these domains is rather unique to every person. What this tells is that people are both really similar and yet very different.”

Sarver added that “the harms people feel from offending are felt within their domains of happiness. Because of this, we think that if we can teach people the language of happiness, victims, offenders, their families and the people who work with them can better understand each other’s pain and then work together to help identify the harms. Then, they can better heal and repair each other. We believe that this increased understanding and working together toward harm repair is a significant transformation of the criminal justice and human service systems.”

Killian said he experienced improvements to his own domains of happiness through his participation in the conference.

“I was very honored to be able to represent Penn State Wilkes-Barre at the ACJS 58th annual conference,” he said. “As an undergrad, the experience I gained from the preparations for the conference as well as presenting at the conference itself will stay with me for the rest of my life. Presenting at a national conference allowed me to get over my fear of public speaking as well as gain a tremendous amount of respect for the quality and quantity of work that goes into a professional research study.”

Based on the positive feedback from their audience, the trio is now working to transform their presentation into a manuscript they hope to submit for peer review.

Jeremy Olson headshot

Jeremy Olson

Credit: Penn State