Accessibility links

Breaking News

Instead of Prison, an Apology and a Second Chance

A California group has pioneered a dispute resolution system called restorative justice, which works to keep youthful offenders out of jail. (File photo)
The path to prison often starts at a young age. Minor rule infractions and misbehavior can quickly lead to punishable offenses. One organization in Oakland, California wants to put an end to that prison pipeline.

Community Works was one of the first non-profits to pioneer an alternative dispute resolution system called restorative justice, which works to keep youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system.

The effort has the support of Alameda County prosecutor Matthew Golde, who'd seen scores of young people imprisoned over the years and realized locking them up wasn't working.

"We know what happens when you incarcerate juveniles for a long period of time," Golde said. "They come out worse. For the vast majority, it is empirically not the best thing to do. So the question is 'What do we do?'"

Restorative justice

John, 16, got caught tagging a building with graffiti and hit a police officer while resisting arrest.

He could have been charged with three felonies and fined up to $250,000. However, rather than face prison time, John agreed to go through a restorative justice conference facilitated by Community Works, which works in collaboration with the Alameda County district attorney's office.

Today, the teenager is reading his letter of apology to the officer.

"I'm sorry for my actions on March 17, 2013, when you tried to stop me on the street in Berkeley. There is no excuse for what I did. I still don't understand why I did it, but I do understand what a terrible choice it was to make in the moment," John said. "Hurting you was not my intention. I was only focused on getting away."

John's mother attended the conference, along with his father and the police officer he assaulted. They sat in a circle, speaking directly to each other. With the assistance of Community Works facilitator Melissa Saavedra, they agreed on a restitution plan; John will perform 20 hours of community service and do chores for his parents.

"He's monitored very closely by myself with the support of mom and dad," Saavedra said. "We go through a plan and do right by the victim."

Second chances

John was given a second chance and can return to school with no criminal record.

The chances that he will stay out of trouble in the future are very good, according to Sujatha Baliga, Restorative Justice director with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who says studies show offenders who go through restorative conferencing are less likely to re-offend.

"In Alameda County, just initial data shows about a 20 percent recidivism rate in our restorative juvenile diversion program here, which is compared to the 75 percent recidivism rate at the county level for similar crimes," Baliga said. "What we know is that there are reduced recidivism rates, so that's huge-when people have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the people that they harmed and apologize and complete a plan to repair that harm, their chances of re-offending plummet."

Modern take on old practice

While restorative justice may be a novel concept to most Americans, it's a system that dates back hundreds of years. It was used by Native American tribes and the aborigines of New Zealand.

The modern-day restorative practice was started in the mid-1970s by Mennonites in Ontario and has since spread to other parts of the world. Because it's relatively new to the United States, the approach doesn't have a proven track record yet.

Last year, Community Works received a federal grant to implement a restorative justice program for youthful offenders in Alameda County. In partnership with the district attorney's office and the probation department, the organization now handles 100 cases a year. The program will soon expand to nearby San Francisco.

"I think it's remarkable that, in a relatively short time, we're this far," said Morgan. "I mean, the D.A. [district attorney] in San Francisco and Oakland are on board with doing a serious pilot of this. We'll see what the outcomes are. But if we get the outcomes we expect, I think it's going to spread and I think the numbers of cases we get will exponentially increase."

Restorative practices have now spread to public schools in the San Francisco and Oakland area. Teachers and administrators are using restorative circles and conferencing to reduce student suspensions and expulsions. And prosecutor Matthew Golde is hopeful that one day, restorative justice will be used in all juvenile offender cases in Alameda County.