I’d like to backtrack a little from my first post on restorative justice and start at the beginning of the process. In our juvenile restorative justice program, a juvenile offender is first referred by the court because he/she is deemed to be a good “fit” for the program. They and their parents or support person meet with the restorative justice coordinator who hears their story, reads the police report, and sets up a time for them to come to a “circle application”. At this circle application, volunteers from the community are also there, and are able to read the police report and ask questions of the young person. He/she is also encouraged to ask questions about the process or anything else they would like to know. When everyone feels ready, each member of the circle (including the young person) states out loud whether or not they accept the offender into the circle. If by consensus they are accepted, another circle is set for two weeks later, and the process begins.
Each circle, including the application circle, begins with a meal together. It’s a time to relax, “break bread” together, and get to know one another. It’s all about relationship and connection, and this meal together sets the stage for the work that is to follow.
The first few circles are about exploring values and building relationships and trust. Guidelines (not rules) are offered by each member of the group and either accepted by the group or modified or changed as necessary. These could include respecting each other, not making assumptions, respecting the talking piece by not talking when you aren’t holding the talking piece, turning off cell phones, etc. We may talk about what values are most important to each one of us and why. These types of exercises encourage us to be our best selves and help us to understand one another.
After a few circles, a social compact is made with the input of everyone, including the offender. Some of the things in the social compact might be similar to what this young person would be required to do if following the traditional route of court and probation, such as community service, paying a fine, having a curfew, and having no further offenses. One of the things I like about this program is the ability to tailor this to the individual. Things that are important or meaningful to this particular young person can be included such as writing in a journal, writing a letter of apology to the victim or victims, performing random acts of kindness, or getting involved in a school or community activity. The youth is also encouraged to take part and hopefully think about what types of things would help them to make amends.
Probably one of the most difficult parts of the process for the offender is facing this same group of people every other week and having to be accountable. It is also one of the best things, in my opinion. To see that there are people who care enough to show up time after time with no reward other than seeing a young person get their life on track, makes a big difference to a lot of young people. Others just aren’t able to handle being face to face like this and being accountable in this way and opt to go back to court and the traditional route. One of the benefits for the person who sticks it out (often for six months or longer) is that the offense will no longer be on their record, but I believe there are even greater benefits.
Many of these young people have felt that they have not been “heard”. In circle, they have an equal say and a chance to tell their story and listen to other’s stories too. They can see that other people have made mistakes and gone on to live healthy, fruitful lives. They can learn skills for coping with school, friends, family, and life. The ability to express themselves is enhanced, and I think they leave circle more mature and grounded. If the victim or victims agrees to come to circle and tell their story (something I have not seen yet), this could be life changing for the offender, hopefully producing empathy and a strong motivation not to reoffend.
The process doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes it seems like one step forward and then three steps backwards. Sometimes circle members have to face the fact that the process isn’t working for that particular individual and send them back to the court system. As I said before, sometimes they opt to go back themselves. Sometimes circle may recommend spending some time in a juvenile detention center and then coming back to circle. Sometimes they love circle and it is all they needed to get their life back on track. Whatever the case, I think it teaches them things about themselves (I know it teaches the volunteers things about themselves!), and the time spent is never wasted time. Patience is key – quick fixes aren’t really fixes at all. Relationship building and gaining trust take time, and the time spent in a restorative justice circle is time invested in the future of a young person and the community.