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Approaching juvenile crime head on

Sara Brooke Curtis

When people get into trouble with the law, they normally don’t have a chance to have a conversation with their victims. To explain what happened. Hear about the damage they caused. Say they’re sorry. But there’s a growing trend to try and make that happen, so both parties can move on.

Restorative Justice brings together the accused, the victim, supportive parties, and authorities. All at the same table in a safe space. It’s an old idea and it’s international. In fact, in New Zealand, where it was originally used by indigenous Maoris, it's a mandatory part of the criminal justice system. Here, in the U.S, these community conferences are increasingly being used in prisons, schools and as an alternative to juvenile detention.

I went to a two-story building in Oakland’s Temescal district to see how restorative justice works first hand. I was there to meet a teenager arrested for burglary and conspiracy.

“He’s here. Now we’re just waiting on law enforcement,” said Jonathan Bradley, a restorative community conferencing coordinator. He’d arranged the meeting, but he was a little nervous. He wasn't sure if everyone would show up. "We’re waiting for the policemen to come that arrested the teen," he said. "If they don’t show up, I'll have one of my coworkers play the role of law enforcement.”

Already the victim had refused to come, so Bradley asked me to sit in as a surrogate. We walked into a room where several chairs were arranged in a circle. Soon after, the tall teen walked in, head down with his grandmother beside him.

Both the teen and his grandmother sat across from me. Right away she asked how long the meeting would take, because she had to get back to work.

A conference coordinator with Community Works walked into the room. She was here to play the part of the police officer, who never showed. The substitute read a police report with a firm voice. The teen looked down at the ground. Then Bradley asked me to tell the story about when my purse was stolen; it was not the same crime this teen committed, but it was a time that I was victimized. For the first time, the teen looked up at me. Stared straight into my eyes. I told him I felt paranoid, angry, violated. It happened over a year ago, but I tried to tell the story as if it were new. Because he was listening.

His grandmother said she’d be so angry if that happened to her. Her arms were folded, just like her grandson’s.

Bradley asked him to stand up and write on a big presentation paper everything that he needed to work on. The teen’s demeanor changed; he was happy to be writing all of this out: applying for jobs; volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club; talking to kids at a middle school about crime; working with an arts project to express himself.

“What our program requires is that they go through a four part program," Bradley told me. "They fix the harm with themselves, they fix the harm with their families, they fix harm to the victim, and fix the harm with the community."

Bradley has about more than 100 cases like this one; he’s completed 40 so far. Some of them were serious assaults, burglaries, and robberies, all scheduled to meet their victims face to face.
Why Restorative Justice?

"When you have to apologize to someone, it's uncomfortable! It's uncomfortable to have to apologize!"

That's enough for Sujatha Baliga a former defense attorney who was frustrated with seeing so many young people get caught up in what she thought was a broken criminal justice system without recognizing their humanity. Now she works at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“I worked with the DA to create the reverse Miranda rule," she said. "The Miranda rule is anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. The reverse Miranda rule is that nothing you say can be used against you in a court of law.”

Baliga’s been training facilitators at Community Works and other sites around the Bay. She’s hoping that eventually Restorative Justice will catch on nationwide.

“It’s so much cheaper!" she said. "I've heard it’s $45-$55 thousand just to run a kid through the court system, for each kid. We can do this for about $4,000 per kid.”

Restorative Justice is now being used not just to keep kids out of detention centers; it’s being incorporated in schools as well. The San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts use the techniques to confront conflicts before they spin out of control and lead to suspensions. Or worse outcomes.

What is the lasting effect?

In the city of Albany, I joined a mother and her 16-year-old son at their kitchen table.

“It’s very scary, of course to hear that your son has essentially stolen a car," the mother told me. She remembered the humiliation he felt, being handcuffed, and taken to the police station. As he related the story, she looked visibly bothered.

The family waited for a court summons; they were expecting some sort of punishment to be handed down. After waiting several weeks they were notified that the case would be handled by Community Works. The teen remembered his friends and their parents being called into a room. At the victim’s request, the policemen who arrested them was there as well. But the teens didn’t have to confront the person who owned the car they were joyriding in the Berkeley Hills; she’d moved. Instead, the victim wrote a letter that was read out loud by the surrogate.

The teen's mother remembered the effect that had. “In her letter," she told me, "she expressed fear, and anxiety that this thing had happened. An uncertainty about the area she was living. A feeling that any of these kids could be involved. A basic sense of violation.” She thought hearing that profoundly affected her son, knowing that he could be responsible for that suffering.

Yet, the teen told me that he was not so sure if the session really had an impact on him. He thought that the victim not being there herself made it all seem not as real. And they often don’t show up. Many victims don’t want anything to do with confronting the perpetrator. Police often don’t show up either, and these are some of several criticisms about restorative justice: that there's not enough buy in; not enough consequence. Nonetheless, Congress has been increasing  the amount of federal money for restorative justice programs over the last several years.

Although it’s cheaper than sending a child to a detention center, restorative justice is very labor intensive. Counselors have to check in to make sure promises are kept: rooms cleaned; community services completed; jobs applications filled out. And, on the front end, if the parents, police, or victims don’t show up to the conferencing, it can send a message to the kids that it’s not that important.

This is both the fundamental strength and weakness of restorative justice: that is only works when everybody is convinced to care.  

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.