One of the themes I write about frequently is restorative justice. I am a firm believer that no matter what age a person is when they commit a crime, they must be held accountable. I am also a firm believer that juveniles, due to age, brain function, maturity and malleability, should be handled in a different manner than adults. Although restorative justice is a concept I would like to see cross the adult/juvenile justice divide, I am particularly pleased when I see this concept being applied in youth settings.
In my region, we are blessed with an agency that has worked diligently and in partnership with municipal law enforcement and courts to allow juvenile offenders to participate in restorative processes like victim/offender mediation, peer and community court. These youth are being held accountable for their actions but the dialogue and consequences are derived very differently from the currently applied retributive justice model. When a victim, juvenile justice professionals and the offender (as well as his or her guardians if a minor) agree, the case can be referred to mediation and community court. Often people wonder what a case like this looks like, how does it ensure accountability and does it improve outcomes. After being involved in these cases, actually sitting at the table with the youth, several factors jump out at me and cement my belief that restorative justice is successful justice. Let me share a few things that I’ve learned.
Recently, I was involved in a case where five young people (Fifth through Tenth Grade) were charged with property damage and trespassing. Unfortunately, the timing was not ideal (the youth were charged in the spring and their community case was not heard until fall). For restorative practices to be most successful, the process to bring restoration must occur quickly. Regardless when it was time to sit at the table, most of the youth and their guardians (who had all voluntarily agreed to participate) were present.
In this particular case, I was present to act as a community member, or victim. This incident occurred in a public place so the damage that was done was to community property. I represented one person in the community. My role was to share with the youth how their actions affected me and help collaborate on a fair and appropriate consequence. I watched as the youth entered the room one by one. The mediators had arranged the table and the seats so that the mediators, the youth and I were seated around the same table with their parents sitting behind them. As the youth came in, they took a seat at the table. Their eyes were downcast. Every once in a while, one would look up at one of the others and emit a nervous laugh. To me, their looks screamed, “Here we go again. All these adults are just going to talk at us. Can we just get started so we can get this over with?” One of the youth kept putting her head down on the table in what looked like an effort to display her complete apathy and disengagement. Then we began.
Finding their Voices/Being Heard
The process began with the mediator laying down the ground rules. These rules outlined the process, its purpose and the code of conduct. After everyone signed the contract, he summarized the charges and began to talk to the kids. He asked each of them to tell what happened in their own words. He would summarize and ask clarifying questions. What surprised me most about this process is that I assumed at least one of the youth would make excuses or try to pass the blame. None of them did. Sometimes their memories had to be jogged but they were encouraged to continue thinking through their behaviors and their motivations. This encouragement consisted of something that doesn’t happen often, especially when adults are talking to kids-silence. What happened within this silence was wonderful to behold and a testament to the process of restorative justice: each child seemed to find his or her voice. In this discovery, their posture became straighter, they looked up from the table and began to make eye contact and they articulated what was going on with them. It was apparent they not only felt as if they were not just being talked at, they were actually being heard.
When it was my time to speak, I also sat in silence for a short while. I processed what I had heard the kids say about their perceptions and their motivations. I thought about what harm their actions created in the community and how to articulate how that made me feel and what my concerns were. I asked silently for the appropriate words that would make a difference in the young lives that sat around the table with me. When I spoke, I explained that although I was there as a representative of the community, they were also part of that community. So the harm they did to me was harm that they did to themselves as well. It was harm that they did to their siblings and their parents and their peers. We were all community and even though they were young it did not diminish their place and importance. From this place, I shared my concerns and asked for feedback on my comments. Each child responded and we dialogued. The discussion was collaborative and each was able to reflect on their role and responsibility as well as the natural consequences that had already occurred due to their actions, such as loss of parental trust and personal freedom. It was within this space of collaboration and community that discussion of official consequences arose.
After a short discussion attempting to quantify the harm done, the group was able to come up with appropriate consequences. First, they would do three hours each of community service (it had taken three people one hour to fix the damage so this time frame seemed fair). Second, each would write a letter to their parents explaining what trust meant, why it was important in families and how they would attempt to earn it back. Third, the kids determined they should model appropriate behavior and to do this they would create posters detailing these, such as anti-smoking and bullying, as well as, a warning against doing the kind of damage they did. What was interesting about this process is the kids immediately starting coordinating with each other and their parents on how to create the posters together. The kids committed the crime together and they wanted to repair the harm together.
Being a part of a community that embraces restorative justice is a blessing. Every case and every interaction I see how this ideology holds youth accountable for their actions but also restores community connection, as well as, preventing the shame and “othering” that occurs in our traditional retributive system. I hope this glimpse into the world of juvenile restorative justice ignites the interest of more justice professionals. Together we can change the outcomes for our youth.