Friday, January 11, 2008
Restorative Justice: a community project
The young man (I'll call him Mark) is looking down, not making eye contact. He slouches in his chair until he gets a subtle nudge from his mom to remind him to sit up. Mark looks as though he'd rather be anywhere else. It's hard to read what he's feeling. Maybe he's mad he was caught; maybe he's embarrassed and remorseful.
This is the start of a meeting, called an opening circle, in the Restorative Justice process offered to young people who are stopped by police for certain crimes in Concord and Carlisle. Mark has come to the circle accompanied by his parents and a facilitator, a type of mentor who has been trained in Restorative Justice practices.
How it happened
The keeper of the circle asks everyone in the circle to describe how the act has affected them. Mark says he and his friends were bored and that they just got carried away. "It was just a stupid crowd mentality," he said. "We didn't mean anything by it." His parents describe having been angry and dismayed after the police came to speak with them, then worried. "This isn't the way we brought our son up to behave," Dad tells the circle. Mom, who's trying to hold back tears, says, "We feel just sick about this."
The police officer in the circle, who detained the young men, says they could have been charged with vandalism and malicious destruction of property had their case been referred to court. The officer says Mark was cooperative when he was stopped, and that this factored in the decision to refer Mark to the Restorative Justice Program instead.
Confidentiality is maintained
The circle is confidential; all agree at the outset that they will not divulge details of the circle. I am writing this article because, as a member of the Concord and Carlisle Restorative Justice Circles, I have been involved in several cases and can describe the process. The incident described here is a composite of multiple cases. We want the public to know what we do, but it would be unfair to participants to allow a newspaper reporter to observe a circle. Confidentiality is a crucial part of the restorative circle, which aims to get at the young offender's motivation and attend to the victim's needs and feelings.
By the end of this opening circle, the nervousness has given way to a sense of hope that Mark can make amends to Jane, who is now a real person to him. "I never thought about there being a person who owned the mailbox and the bushes," he says. "I'm really sorry. It was just stupid. I want to make up for it." He agrees to replace the mailbox and do some planting, and to write apologies to Jane and his parents. In addition, he will work with his facilitator on a reflective writing that examines his decision-making the evening of the incident. Jane says she'd like to see him perform some service in the community, and he readily agrees. The circle decides to require ten hours.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative Justice as practiced locally is a partnership between local police and community members. It puts victims first, giving them a chance to confront offenders in a safe, respectful setting that permits dialog, and it helps youth learn that they are part of a community with norms and expectations, a community that cares about them. Circles occur in a variety of community buildings. Currently, the local program is offered only to young offenders.
More broadly, Restorative Justice is based on the notion that those affected by crime can best be healed through communication and reconciliation. It emphasizes restitution rather than retribution. It seeks to compensate and to ease the fears of the person who's been harmed. It can restore the offender to a respected place in the community. If an offender admits to her crime and agrees to participate in a circle, she can avoid going to court and the prospect of an arrest record that could affect her ability to get a job or financial aid for college.
Restorative Justice is practiced in many forms, including circles, panels and boards. Many programs include offenders of all ages. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa were a form of Restorative Justice. In this country, restorative programs exist in several states, including Alaska, California, Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont (where state law requires the practice of Restorative Justice). Suffolk University in Boston has a Center for Restorative Justice that provides training and other resources to support its programs.
Restorative Justice came to Concord in 2000 at the urging of Concord Police Chief Leonard Wetherbee, who believes it is the "missing puzzle piece" for many police departments that want to enforce the laws while also serving the needs of victims and providing a way for their communities to interact meaningfully with young offenders. Working with Wetherbee, founders Jean Bell and Joan Turner of Concord assembled a small group of volunteers that has since grown to more than 60 trained and active volunteers in our communities, more than a dozen police officers, and several people from other communities. In 2002, Carlisle volunteers established a circle here.
In 2006, the organization formalized as Communities for Restorative Justice. To date the local programs have conducted 65 circles involving more than 100 youth. In 2007 alone, police referred 16 cases to us involving 31 youth. Young offenders in our program have contributed more than 300 hours of community service in the last 12 months, in addition to those required by their schools.
Admission to the program
For a youth to be referred to a circle, the police must deem the young person and the offense suitable, and the offender must admit responsibility for the offense. Certain cases are not accepted and are referred instead to court. We have handled cases involving acts as minor as graffiti and as serious as shoplifting and vandalism.
We also conduct circles for youth found to be in possession of alcohol or drugs. We require such offenders to meet with a substance-abuse counselor for assessment before a circle may commence. Frequently, these offenders continue with counseling or education programs.
All of us who sit in these cases are volunteers. We spend a weekend in initial training. New trainees shadow more experienced volunteers. We meet often for more formal training and to share lessons learned. Why do we do it? Why spend the considerable time involved? Why not just let the parents, police, and courts deal with the misdeeds of youngsters? One of the basic tenets of Restorative Justice is that crime affects a community as well as the person or institution directly harmed. As Carlisle Police Chief John Sullivan remarked recently of a relatively minor vandalism case, "We could have just let it go, but I told my officers this is just the kind of thing I want to see go to a restorative circle because it's a chance for these kids to connect with the community, to see how much their actions mean to the people who live here. Going to the circle could keep these kids from getting into something worse."
Although a trip to court may act as a wakeup call to a youth in trouble, the experience there is often impersonal, with little or no opportunity to make amends to a victim or to learn about one's own behavior and values. Victims learn little if anything about the event when a young offender goes to court. Maybe they are compensated financially, maybe not; but they do not get the chance to ask why or to learn anything about the youth.
Does restorative justice work?
Does Restorative Justice work? In our circles, those who have been harmed report strong satisfaction with outcomes. Another important measure of our success comes from parents. Many parents have expressed gratitude for the help they and their children received. "I knew something was going on," says one mother of a youth found in possession of alcohol. "I feel weird saying it, but I think his getting caught was the best thing that could have happened. He couldn't keep denying it. He had to talk to me."
Says another parent of a child picked up for vandalism, "Naturally, we would have talked about it at home, but the conversation would have fallen into the same old pattern. We said and heard things in the circle we never would have otherwise."
And as a young offender said at the close of a recent circle, "I've gained so much more from this than I would have anywhere else. I learned a lot about decision-making, about stopping to think, and it's helped me at school and in the rest of my life as well."
Mark's case closes
Two months after Mark's opening circle, all of us reconvene in a closing circle to discuss how Mark has fulfilled his obligations and to hear from Jane. "You know, if I hadn't met you in the circle," she tells Mark, "I would have thought you and your friends were just punks. But now I know you're a good guy who made a bad decision. I think it was brave of you to step up the way you have and I really like the work you did to help out the Public Works Department." Mark, who's now looking everyone in the eye, says he learned a lot from the experience and that he knows he will have more backbone the next time someone dares him to do something destructive.
For more information about Communities for Restorative Justice, or to inquire about volunteer opportunities, please contact Executive Director Betsy Maloney, 1-978-318-3447, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website at www.c4rj.com.
To learn more about Restorative Justice, several excellent books have been published, including The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito