Can an offender be referred to Restorative Justice more than once?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Linda (18)
    • 2 Facilitators (1 staff, 1 volunteer)
    • 2 Community Members (1 staff, 1 volunteers)
    • Police Officer
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Theft
  • Referring agent: Police Department
  • Factual Synopsis: An eighteen-year-old girl stole some clothing items from Kohl’s. She had been referred to restorative justice two years before for marijuana consumption and had completed her contract.
  • Narrative:

Often there is resistance from police officers, volunteers and others in the community to giving an offender the opportunity to go through the restorative justice process more than once. It is rare for an officer to refer someone to us who has been through before, though occasionally if it is an unrelated offense, he or she will be given a second opportunity to go through the process. This was the case for Linda, an 18-year-old in her second semester of senior year, who stole some clothing items from Kohl’s. When Linda was 16, she was referred to restorative justice for marijuana consumption. She and a friend were caught smoking marijuana in a car by a local park. During our intake call, Linda reported that going through restorative justice for this first offense was a good experience for her and that she appreciated the opportunity to repair harms. I explained that it is rare to be referred to restorative justice for more than one offense and she said she was grateful to be given the opportunity again.

Linda’s conference was successful and held few surprises. What she shared followed the narrative we hear from many adolescent offenders. Linda explained that she just wasn’t thinking about what she was doing. She saw the cute clothing items and took them, with no thought of consequences or impacts. It wasn’t until she was sitting in her car outside the store that it dawned on her what she had just done. She said she sat there for a while in disbelief and that is when the Loss and Prevention Officer came and knocked on her window. This is an account I hear frequently from teenagers. When they look back on the offense, they don’t remember any conscious thought about what they were doing, just an impulse. This aligns with what we know about teenage brain development. Teenagers need time to develop good decision making and most will make more than one mistake in the meantime.

This case got me thinking about the resistance I hear to referring a young person to restorative justice more than once. Is it a realistic expectation for a young person to go through the process once and then never make another mistake? Restorative justice helps people understand the true impact of their actions and provides an avenue to make things right, but it does not guarantee that a teenager will never make another mistake.

Possibly there is a benefit to going through the process more than once. Restorative justice introduces a new way of thinking about wrong doings and it encourages teenage offenders to develop a constructive way to deal with the mistakes they make, guided by a restorative mentality. I have witnessed this restorative mentality among the students involved in the restorative justice student team. I have the privilege of working with the student RJ team for late start trainings each month and am continually astounded by the ease with which they speak openly, listen attentively, identify harms, and come up with the most creative ways to repair those harms. This group of young people is learning a way of interacting with the world that is radically different from what is being taught in most of the country and most of the world. They are learning every day about the importance of relationships and how to identify each other’s unique gifts and apply those passions and skills to making the world a better place.

Students who are exposed to restorative justice stand out. While doing intake phone calls in the Community Restorative Justice office, I encounter many offenders who, when asked about possible contract items, cannot think past mandated community service hours and fines. Recently, I did an intake call with a young man who had previously been through the school restorative justice process. He was referred to Community Restorative Justice for a relatively small incident. He and a friend were fighting and in the process, damaged a neighbor’s door. Without prompting, this 15-year-old understood the greater emotional impact on the neighbors. “They were probably scared,” he said, “because they didn’t know what was happening. And it woke up their kids too.” When I asked him about ideas for repairing the harm, he started up immediately. “I was thinking I could write a poem for them, and make a video about the downfalls of fighting. Also, I like making comics, so maybe I could make a comic about it. I also already apologized to the family.” I couldn’t conceal my amazement. Here was a young person who has learned through his life experience that when you make a mistake, you take responsibility for what you did and think about who was impacted. Then you use your own unique skills and passions to make it right. What a gift for the rest of his life to have grown up in a community that encourages that sort of continued learning, both in the schools and in the justice system.

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