How (and Why) Does Restorative Justice Repair Harm to Self?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender –Brian (15)
  • Offender Support- Brian’s mother
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • Police Officer
  • Diversion Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Resisting Arrest

Referring agent: Juvenile Diversion Program

Factual Synopsis: A fifteen year old boy resisted arrest when he was stopped by an officer for a curfew violation. He was referred to restorative justice by his diversion officer.


“Brian isn’t a bad kid. His brother was always in trouble and struggling, but Brian is not that kid.” I heard the worried urgency in Brian’s mother’s voice when we spoke on the phone during our first intake call. My fingers raced on the keyboard, trying to keep up with her mile-per-minute description of Brian’s pending criminal charges. “It’s really no big deal, just a curfew ticket. He isn’t a bad kid.”

Brian’s charges were a big deal though. When the officer stopped Brian and his friend on their way to buy energy drinks at a gas station at 2am, his friend politely complied while Brian freaked out. He began yelling at the officer and tried to run away. When the officer grabbed his backpack to stop him, he spun around, squaring up on her. Brian is 15 and about 6 feet tall. He is making the shift, from a boy to a man, and when he faced off with the officer it was formidable. She later shared that, in that moment, she had already decided how far she would let it go before pulling her gun to shoot. Instead, Brian decided to run, still yelling profanities, and didn’t come back until he noticed his friend, sitting quietly on the curb. When he came back, the officer handcuffed him and charged him with resisting arrest.

In lieu of court, Brian’s case was handled by diversion and was referred to Restorative Justice by his diversion officer. When I met Brian, it didn’t take long to see that this incident was not a full representation of who he is. Brian is bright-eyed and polite. He loves math and science and is already looking at summer internships in engineering. He sings in the school choir and is trying out for the a cappella group next year. He told me he sings everywhere, from the shower to the lunchroom, no matter who is around. Overall, Brian is a good kid who made a mistake and acted in a way he shouldn’t have.

During the conference, Brian spoke clearly and apologetically about the incident. He listened carefully while the officer who he had encountered that night spoke about her thought process in that moment, choking up as she described preparing herself to pull a weapon if necessary. The two community members spoke about their concern for Brian’s safety and their fears that a similar explosion of anger could result in him being hurt or killed in a number of situations. Brian listened, and responded with remorse. He shared that he was touched by the care of the people in the circle.

When Brian’s diversion officer spoke, she spoke of Brian’s older brother. She had known Brian’s older brother when he was an adolescent. “I worked with your brother, Brian, and he got in a lot of trouble for a long time. But this isn’t like you. Having gotten to know you, I don’t think this is what you’re like at all.” I looked across the circle at Brian and he had started to cry. He spoke up, “After this happened, I was really nervous that I have the same problems as him, that I’m as angry as him.” Hearing this, his mother began to cry as well. This interaction illuminated another major harm: harm to Brian and his sense of self.

There are a number of reasons that being arrested, put through the court system, and in extreme cases, through juvenile detention, is harmful to youth. The process requires time and energy away from normal educational and social activities and is a landmine of intricacies that if not followed exactly, can result in the youth being in even greater trouble. Perhaps most harmful though, is the impact of the traditional justice system on self-perception. By treating youth like criminals, we teach them to think of themselves as criminals. The stigmatizing shame experienced by offenders often leads them to reject the rejector (mainstream society) and the rules of the rejector (laws). A solution to this isolation and shame is to turn to criminal subcultures, which provide a culture of pride in delinquency. In this way, failing to properly address harm to self perpetuates criminal behavior and ultimately makes communities less safe.

In Brian’s Restorative Justice circle, we had the chance to address harm to self. One of the community members suggested that Brian make a list of qualities he likes about himself to be posted on some item that means a lot to him. Brian took that idea and ran with it. By the end of the conference, he had described an elaborate hand-made mobile he planned to make out of music notes connected by fishing wire, each with a statement of something he likes about himself on it. Perhaps more important than the specific contract item that arose to address the harm, Brian had the opportunity to sit in a group of people who were there to hear about his mistake, while still seeing him as a whole person and caring deeply about him. He had the opportunity to be embraced and supported by the community, flaws and all.


Q: How is it decided what cases are eligible for the restorative justice program?  I’m assuming there first has to be a formal charge by the police or another party.  Is it then up to the police department, or the court, to decide if the restorative process is an option?  I’d guess that if the contract with restorative justice is not fulfilled the case reverts back to the courts?

A: One of the benefits of restorative justice is that if the offender is successful in the process, there will be no criminal conviction on his or her record. The majority of the cases the organization I work with handles are referred directly by police officers. The officer encounters the offender at the scene and determines whether or not the case is a good fit for restorative justice. The offender has to take responsibility for his or her actions in order for the case to be a good fit. Additionally, the victim has to agree to the process being handled through restorative justice. The incident does not have to be a first-time offense, and there are no age restrictions. The only types of offenses that we do not accept are traffic violations, domestic abuse (because of the power differential), and crimes of a sexual nature (because of mandatory reporting laws).

Cases can also be referred by judges, or as part of diversion requirements for juvenile offenders accepted into the DA diversion program. After we receive the referral, we begin intakes to determine whether or not the offender is taking responsibility and if there are other mental or circumstantial factors that may require additional support. After we accept the case, we assign facilitators who carry the case through the pre-conference and conference.

At the end of the conference, the offender and the other participants in the community group conference sign a contract with 3-5 items and a deadline, things the offender agrees to do to repair the harm and make things right. The offender then has until the end of the contract to turn in proof of completion of all items to our office. Once all items are turned in, we do a search in the police database to ensure that the referred person did not offend while under contact (we do not count traffic tickets, but any other offense, regardless of whether it is related to the initial charge). If the contract is complete and there is no additional offense, the case is closed. We inform the officer, and there is no formal charge or criminal conviction on the offender’s record. If the contract is not complete or if the offender offended under contract, the case is referred back to the police department (or diversion officer or judge) and it proceeds through the traditional court system, resulting in a criminal conviction on his or her record.

How is the Outcome of Restorative Justice Different from the Traditional Court System?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender –Maddie (14)
  • Offender Support- Maddie’s mother
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • 2 Animal Control Police Officers

Criminal Charges Pending: Animal Abuse

Referring agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: Two fourteen-year-old girls took a pet chinchilla to the park and filmed themselves making it “swim” in the creek. Maddie’s case was handled through restorative justice and Alison’s case was handled through the traditional court system.


In studying the restorative justice process and how it compares to the traditional court system, it is common to attempt to find similar cases (with the same pending charge and similar age, demographic and criminal history of the offender) that went through each system in order to draw comparisons. The chance to look at a direct comparison, how a single case is handled through RJ and the courts respectively, is a rare occurrence. In 2014, our organization had the opportunity to make that direct comparison.

During the summer, Maddie and Alison, two 14-year-old girls, brought Maddie’s chinchilla Chester to the park near Maddie’s house. The two girls decided to take Chester down to the creek in the park to see if he could swim. They filmed a video of themselves dropping Chester in the water and watching as he struggled to keep his head above the surface. They made Chester “swim” several times and when they finally removed him from the water, his breathing was deep and frantic. Chester survived, but in the video, he appears to be near death. When the girls got home, they posted the video of Chester in the creek on YouTube. The backlash online, especially from animal rights groups, was extreme. Maddie received death threats through her YouTube and Facebook accounts and terrible accusations. Eventually, the YouTube video was brought to the attention of local Animal Control officers who went through the long process of finding Maddie and Alison through their proximity to the park filmed in the video. The officers spoke with both families and decided to refer the case to restorative justice. During intakes, Alison’s parents were insistent that she had done nothing wrong and ultimately refused to go through restorative justice. Alison was referred back to the police department for her case to be handled through court and the process moved forward with only Maddie participating.

Maddie’s restorative justice conference was an emotional process. After sharing the story of taking Chester to the park and dropping him in the water, Maddie cried as she described her feeling of having let Chester down as the person who is supposed to be his protector. Her contract included making a plan for proper care of Chester, raising money to donate to a chinchilla rescue, making a video on the downfalls of social media, and writing a short children’s book with information on proper chinchilla care to be reviewed by a vet. Three months later, Maddie completed her contract. The final stanza of her children’s book read:

“Now you know how to care for your little fluffy ball.

If you have any questions, just give your vet a call.

Please love your chinny and they will love you.

These sweet gentle animals need a mommy or daddy and that can be you!”

Maddie’s case is now closed. She has no criminal conviction on her record. Furthermore, she had the beneficial experience of taking responsibility for her actions and repairing the harms, and is taking much better care of Chester.

After being referred back to the Police Department, Alison was issued a summons for a court date. She did not appear in court. There is now a warrant out for her arrest. Unfortunately, this incident will impact Alison’s permanent record and may even result in time spent in juvenile detention.

Maddie and Alison’s case demonstrates the advantages of restorative justice in allowing people to learn from their mistakes and move forward in a productive way. It also demonstrates the pitfalls of the court system and how one incident can easily spiral into greater legal trouble that can impact the rest of a young person’s life.

Is Restorative Justice Effective for Adult Offenders?

Type of process: Community Group Conference (CGC)

Conference Participants:

  • Offender – Joel (24)
  • Offender Support- Lila
  • Victim –Violet (grandmother)
  • Victim – Sally (granddaughter)
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • Police Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Harassment

Referring agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: A young man mistakenly called a grandmother and granddaughter thinking he was calling another driver he was involved in a road rage incidents with. He harassed and threatened the two women over the course of several phone calls in the same evening.

Narrative: Is Restorative Justice effective for adult offenders? This is one of the questions I hear most frequently when I explain my work as a Restorative Justice case coordinator. “That’s cool. So you just work with youth right?” I usually respond by giving the age-range of the offenders I am currently working with. In my current case load, that age-range is 11 to 74, with everything in between. To limit Restorative Justice to juvenile offenders would severely inhibit its possibilities. The most recent case I helped facilitate illustrated the immense potential of Restorative Justice in dealing with crimes and conflicts between adults.

Back in April, Sally (age 25) was spending the afternoon with her grandmother, Violet (age 73). The phone rang and Violet answered. She heard a man screaming on the other end saying, “You cut me off. I know where you live and I’m going to come get you.” Violet tried to explain that he must have the wrong number, but the man continued screaming profanities and threats and eventually she hung up. When the man called back a second time, Sally took the phone. She tried again to say it was the wrong number and told him to stop calling or she would call the police, but the yelling and threats only escalated. The man on the phone told Sally that he would find her and “rape her to death.” Sally hung up and called the police. When the police arrived, the man had called again and when the women didn’t answered, he had left a message on the machine with the same threats and profanities.

The following months, while the police department attempted to track down the caller, were extremely difficult for Sally and Violet and for their family. Violet felt nervous every time she went outside the house, worried that the man on the phone really would find her and do the awful things he had threatened. For months, the fear of this encounter loomed over her. For Sally, it was even worse. As a child, Sally had been the victim of sexual and physical assault. In the months following the phone calls, Sally grappled with the re-surfacing of painful memories and experienced horrible nightmares. When I spoke with Sally during intakes, she said that the man on the phone sounded just angry and crazy enough to actually do the things he had threatened. The fear was real and constant.

Five months passed before the officer handling the case was able to track down the man who had made the phone calls, a 24-year-old named Joel. After speaking with Joel, the officer returned to Violet and Sally and explained that because Joel was taking responsibility for his actions, they could chose to either press harassment charges, or handle the incident through Restorative Justice. Violet and Sally chose to have the case referred to Restorative Justice.

When the group first sat down in a circle together at the community group conference, the tension was palpable. Joel sat down next to his best friend Lila who was there as his support person, avoiding eye contact with Violet and Sally seated on the other side of the lead facilitator. After introductions and ground rules, Joel told his side of the story. The week before the phone calls, Joel had been involved in a serious road rage incident, in which passengers in another car had pulled out baseball bats and repeatedly hit Lila’s car while they were driving down the road. So when Joel was cut off by a car on the day of the incident and experienced the other driver yelling threats at him and Lila through the open window, he was experiencing residual stress from the recent encounter with the baseball bats. Joel saw a phone number on the back of the other driver’s car and hoped to call in to report the man’s bad driving. When Violet answered, Joel believed he was speaking to the driver who had cut him off and was yelling at him and threatening Lila through the window. Joel explained to the circle that he was angry and scared while all this was happening, but that it was no excuse for the things he had said. He expressed how ashamed he felt when he read the police report and saw in print the things he had said over the phone. He mentioned how frightened Violet and Sally must have been and apologized for putting them through that.

After Joel, the circle turned to Violet and Sally to tell their side of the story. Violet explained the fear she experienced and her worries about Sally. Sally shared a statement she had written before, explaining some of the heart-breaking abuse from her past and how what was said in the phone calls had impacted her. Both women also expressed worry for Joel, for the way he manages his anger, and a desire for him to get help.

Next, the police officer spoke and explained to Joel how serious the charges could have been if this case had been handled through the traditional justice system. Punishment could have included jail time, and would have certainly involved fines and probation. The community members expressed their concern about a chain of offenses and anger. One person who is angry harms another, who then out of anger and fear harms another and so on. That cycle could continue indefinitely without tools like Restorative Justice to address repairing harm rather than relying and retributive harming. A young male community member also shared his frustration with men who believe in gender equality like Joel continuing to threaten sexual violence, and the huge step backwards that represents.

After everyone in the circle had spoken and Joel repeated back the harms he had heard identified by each person in the circle, we moved on to Joel’s assets. As the co-facilitator, it had been my job to speak with Joel during the pre-conference to get to know him a bit better, to explore his interests and strengths. I shared our conversation with the circle and spoke about Joel’s love of gardening and music, especially electric guitar. I talked about his fondness for animals, and desire to adopt a German shepherd like the one his family had when he was a child. The mood of the circle began to shift, as victim and offender identified common interests and laughed about Joel’s wish to go back in time and meet Jimi Hendrix.

The agreement phase went smoothly, and the circle arrived at a contract that addressed Joel’s issues with anger, the harm to the victims and the community and the harm Joel had experienced from his actions. By the end of the circle, the tension had dissipated and Sally was chatting and laughing with Joel and Lila, even exchanging phone numbers. At the end of the conference, both Violet and Sally expressed that their fear was gone.

What is outstanding about this particular case is the opportunity that the Restorative Justice process provided for both Joel and Violet and Sally to understand the other side of the incident. At the beginning of the circle, Joel understood that what he had done was wrong and that it could make someone feel afraid, but it wasn’t until he heard from Violet and Sally about their past experiences and fear after the incident, that he understood the true impact of his actions. For Violet and Sally, it was a chance to put a face to their fear, and to understand Joel as a whole person, not just as a terrifying voice on the phone. All three were able to move forward from the incident, Joel towards repairing the harm, and Violet and Sally towards feeling safe again. If this case had been handled by the courts, this opportunity to talk about the incident, to identify the harms, and for Joel to take responsibility, apologize and work towards making things right never would have happened. The phone calls would have continued to be an element of fear and hostility in their lives, impacting their interaction with the world. Instead, that fear and hostility has been transformed into understanding and growth.

Limiting Restorative Justice to youth offenders would have excluded Joel’s case and would have been a major loss for all involved and for the greater community. Restorative Justice is a profound process and a positive tool to be utilized with people of all ages.