Of Doubt and Change

By Fellow Officer

This piece was written by a police officer about his first experience with restorative justice. He submitted the piece to be shared anonymously with other officers. 

Restorative justice? Yeah right! Bad guys go to jail. That’s the way it is and should stay. Ask any child how the game of “cops and robbers” is played. Simple enough.

That was my thinking. With nearly three years of working the mean streets of our city I had it all figured out. “Cops vs. robbers,” and the more “robbers” I put in jail the better of a “cop” I was.

Then came this “restorative justice” nonsense. A new and improved way of doing things, that I was basically being forced to participate in. Instead of putting bad guys in jail we would sit with them in a “peace circle” and tell them just how bad they were. Then we’d give them hugs and sing Kumbaya right? You’ve got to be kidding me! That is not how it works. Obviously the “higher ups” had been sitting at their desk for too long and grown delirious. Now we were having to change everything based on their skewed vision of justice.

But the recidivism rate speaks for itself. Restorative justice works. Humph! I’d show them. Let’s see what happens when we start putting some real criminals into their program. See how the recidivism rate does then. They were probably fudging the numbers anyhow.

So began my master plan. All I needed now was the right dirt bag at the right time. And then I found him, Jerry. Every cop in our city knew Jerry. Habitually drunk, probably holding “crack” or some other illicit street narcotic, and more likely than not in the company of one of our most highly ill regarded local prostitutes. It was a beautiful sight in my eyes. Jerry, drunk as usual, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries he’s just lifted from the local grocer. “I will be seeing you in the ‘peace circle’ my friend.”

Our “circle” came not long after that. I donned my freshly pressed uniform, shined my boots and put on my best toothy smile. As I walked into the circle I noted that Jerry had probably been drinking already that day. Perfect! However, all the facilitators were friendly, courteous, and respectful towards Jerry. In turn he seemed to be minding his “Ps and Qs.” Being my skeptical self I figured he was just putting on a show and enjoying the free snacks and attention.

As our “circle” got underway it was apparent the facilitators had come prepared. I was especially impressed by an elderly male facilitator who must have done extensive research on shop lifting and its repercussions. He quoted statistics and gave a play by play numerical break down of how even the smallest theft comes back to affect every consumer in the community. It was actually quite impressive. Jerry seemed interested, but still seemed to lack any real concern for how his actions were affecting others.

Then came a pivotal moment. A second facilitator posed the question to Jerry, “How did you get here, what led you down this path?” Jerry initially told us he wasn’t sure and spoke about his substance abuse and related problems. Everyone calmly listened and let him go on. Jerry continued. “Maybe this all started when my mother died,” he though out loud. Jerry went on to explain what his mother had meant to him and how her passing had affected him. As he went on I could hear his voice change and see he was having difficulty getting through this. Despite living a destructive lifestyle, Jerry was not weak, and had kept his pride intact for the most part. I could see that same pride was crumbling down as he came face to face with the demons of his past.

Jerry went on for several more minutes, no longer able to maintain his composure while reflecting on his mother’s death and his own fall shortly afterwards. At first I thought this too was an act but it became clear as time went on that Jerry was truly sincere in his confession. The facilitator who posed that initial question offered Jerry a kind hug while another retrieved a box of Kleenex. The Kleenex was appreciated by all.

A contract was discussed and agreed upon. Jerry would complete an apology letter and do several hours of community service. The agreement seemed fair, more so than I had seen in the court system. Despite his emotional and seemingly heartfelt confession, I still had doubts as to Jerry’s ability to follow through with the contract and not reoffend. I was sure it was a matter of time.

So I waited, and waited, and waited. I had waited long enough in fact that I had forgotten about Jerry and my plan entirely. Then one day, probably a year or more later, I was on bike patrol in a local park. I spotted a lone rider coming my way in the distance. As the rider got closer I immediately recognized him as Jerry, a much more sober and healthier looking Jerry. Jerry stopped and we spoke for several minutes. He told me how the “circle” had changed things for him. He had a new perspective on life. Part of his community service was completed at a local church. He had made some strong connections with that church and was now doing work for them on a regular basis. He was also sober and spending time in the gym again. Jerry had even reconnected with his family and was working towards healing those broken relationships, while making up for lost time with his daughter. I was both shocked and proud of what Jerry had accomplished.

Before we went our separate ways that day Jerry thanked me for giving him a chance when no one else would. I did not fill Jerry in on the finer details of my plan, but did confess I had doubted he would make it. Jerry smiled, a very real smile, and laughed that he would have doubted himself too.

To this day I occasionally see Jerry out riding his bike or at a coffee shop and we take a few minutes to catch up. He is still doing well and is even using his past mistakes to help steer his family, friends, and acquaintances from going down the wrong path. Each time I see Jerry I am reminded of the good that came from our restorative justice meeting, our “circle.” I am also reminded of my own ill intentioned plan to doom that program. More importantly, I am reminded that there is hope for even the most seemingly lost of people. Day in and day out I see the same people struggle with addiction, mental illness, or just plain old poor decision making. Jerry is a constant reminder to me that it can be done, people can overcome, and that opportunity should be given to everyone. Who knows, there could be more Jerrys out there just waiting for someone to give them that chance. That is my hope.

Is Restorative Justice Effective for Felony Level Crimes?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Tyler (26)
    • 3 Victims- Dr. Hay and his wife (Amy), Madeline (the clinic manager)
    • 2 Facilitators (staff)
    • 2 Community Members (2 volunteers)
    • 1 Police Officer (Officer Peters)
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Felony Possession and Forgery
  • Referring agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: A 26-year-old male working at a medical clinic wrote prescriptions for himself for oxycodone, forging a doctor’s signature and prescription number. He wrote and filled prescriptions for oxycodone for about 8 months.

 Narrative: Restorative Justice is often portrayed as a process best used for low-level misdemeanors committed by youth or first-time offenders. This reputation has provided a great way for Restorative Justice to get its foot in the door in the traditional justice system to begin proving its effectiveness. However, to limit Restorative Justice to misdemeanors and petty offences is to overlook the process’s power for healing and transformation after more serious crimes.

Tyler (26) had been working at a local medical clinic for a couple years as he worked toward his goal of becoming a Physician Assistant. Tyler was well liked in the clinic, trusted by his co-workers, and especially by his boss, Madeline. Last winter, a personal crisis hit in Tyler’s family that drastically changed the way he perceived the home life he had grown up with. Tyler struggled with the grief he felt about his family and didn’t know how to handle it. One day, he decided to turn to prescription drugs to numb his pain. In the clinic, he completed a prescription for himself for oxycodone using Dr. Hay’s name and information and filled it at King Soopers. What followed was nearly 8 months of a pattern for Tyler of writing new prescriptions for himself and spending nearly every night numbed by the oxycodone. Tyler described that during that time, he felt distant from his wife as he kept this habit a secret from her and everyone else in his life. Tyler did see a counselor during those months and spoke with her about his struggles, but he was unable to break the habit.

Because Dr. Hay only worked at the clinic with Tyler one day every week, Tyler was able to keep the crime hidden. Then, in June, a pharmacist at King Soopers who is friends with Dr. Hay mentioned to him that he had been filling a prescription for oxycodone for one of his patients for the last few months. Dr. Hay was confused because he knew he was not currently prescribing oxycodone to any of his patients. Dr. Hay and his wife, Amy, began calling the clinic to get answers. At the clinic, Tyler’s manager asked Tyler to find the information Dr. Hay needed. At that point, Tyler decided he needed to confess what he had been doing. He called Dr. Hay back and told him the whole story. Dr. Hay advised that Tyler share what he had done with Madeline, seek addiction counseling, and inform the police.

After Tyler left the clinic, he went straight to the Police Station to confess what he had done. At the Police Station, Tyler spoke with Officer Peters who was struck by Tyler’s decision to take responsibility for his actions upfront. Officer Peters, hearing Tyler take responsibility, brought the case to Restorative Justice to see if it would make an appropriate referral. In the office, we explained that within the confines of our specific program, we are not able to offer the services needed to treat addiction and therefore we felt it necessary for Tyler to seek out help for addiction before being referred to Restorative Justice. Officer Peters checked back in with Tyler and confirmed that he was pursuing counseling and spoke with the victims to get their permission to send the case to Restorative Justice. Both Dr. Hay and Madeline later expressed that they were relieved that there was another option for Tyler. Neither of them wanted to see Tyler’s life ruined or for him to end up in prison.

At the conference, what was most evident was the care Tyler, Madeline, Dr. Hay and Amy all had for each other. The four involved parties had invited each other over for holidays, had supported each other, and considered each other family. Madeline got emotional as she described one of the biggest impacts for her being not having Tyler at the clinic anymore and how much she missed having someone she could rely on so completely. She talked about how overworked everyone at the clinic had been since he had to leave and their struggle to replace him. Dr. Hay and Amy talked about their son who had struggled with addiction and eventually died from related issues, and how they cared about Tyler and wanted a better outcome for him. Tyler spoke about the internal struggle he had felt during all those months and about the support network of his wife, co-workers, and friends that he didn’t really know he had until everything came to light.

One major issue that surfaced at the conference was that in the weeks following the confession, Tyler had hired a lawyer. He did so at the advice of a friend who told him, “It isn’t a question of if you’ll go to prison, it is for how long. And it isn’t a question of if you’ll be in financial ruin from fines, it is how bad of ruin it will be.” Feeling scared, Tyler hired a lawyer. After Tyler confessed to Dr. Hay and Madeline what he had done, both Dr. Hay and Madeline called and texted Tyler most days to see how he was doing. They expressed that they were worried about him and wanted to make sure he knew they cared about him and was getting the help he needed. After Tyler hired the lawyer, he was advised to no longer communicate with Dr. Hay or Madeline, so stopped returning texts and calls. Madeline and Dr. Hay both shared that the lack of communication was one of the most hurtful parts of the entire encounter. When they learned that Tyler had hired a lawyer, they began to feel defensive. Dr. Hay and Amy expressed that they were worried because Dr. Hay’s physician prescription number and signature had been used, and they weren’t sure if this could be turned against them. Madeline also worried that somehow this could be turned against the clinic, and also felt hurt that her care was not reciprocated. When Dr. Hay, Amy and Madeline had the chance to express these feelings in the Restorative Justice conference, Tyler apologized repeatedly and shared that he had only been thinking about his fear and not about how hiring a lawyer would come across to them.

The conflict and hurt around the hiring of a lawyer sheds light on how this case might have turned out if it was sent to the traditional court system. Tyler would have done everything in his power to minimize the amount of time he would be spending in prison and the financial impact on him and his wife. This would have been battled out in court, with the two sides instructed not to speak to each other, with attempts to shift the blame. Would his relationship with his wife have survived the courts, fines, and prison time? In the fight, would he be able to find the network of supportive relationships he needs to overcome his struggle with addiction? Would he have the freedom to prioritize treatment? Would court, prison, and labels change the way Tyler sees himself?

When we came to the assets portion of the Restorative Justice conference, when the co-facilitator shared strengths and passions Tyler has that can help him to repair the harms from the incident, Madeline, Dr. Hay, and Amy all had their own strengths and positive qualities to add. The message was clear: the circle of people cared about and supported Tyler, they saw him for the good person he is, and were there to help him make things right.

For Tyler’s contract to repair the harms, he will be spending hours volunteering at the free clinic for the uninsured and underinsured that Dr. Hay and Amy run two days every week. At Officer Peter’s suggestion, Tyler will also spend some time volunteering at the local Youth Center, doing outdoor activities with youth who often face their own struggles coping in a positive way with family trauma. Tyler will also be helping Madeline with a couple projects for the clinic that he can complete remotely in order to take something off her plate. Finally, Tyler has committed to pursing counseling for addiction and to forming a treatment plan that will help him recognize addiction as a life-long struggle and form strategies for using his network of support when times are difficult.

All of these contract items work to repair the relationships that were damaged, and position Tyler to make a healthy recovery. Because he committed felony level crimes, in most communities in the United States, Tyler’s case would not be considered for Restorative Justice and would be sent directly to the courts, most likely resulting in some prison time. Instead, this felony level offense was referred to Restorative Justice.