Can Restorative Justice Overcome a Family Culture of Crime?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Karin (17)
    • Offender Support- Karin’s mother (Jackie)
    • 2 Facilitators
    • 2 Community Members
    • Police Officer
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Theft (misdemeanor)
  • Referring agent: Police Department
  • Factual Synopsis: A 17-year-old was with her mother and two younger siblings at Walmart. They filled the shopping cart with $950 of merchandise and attempted to leave the store.
  • Narrative:

Karin (17 years old) was with her mother (Jackie) and younger twin siblings (9 years old) at Walmart. As they walked around the store, Karin and her mother filled the shopping cart with a variety of merchandise, including clothing, videos, and food, totaling to $950 in value. They filled the cart and then attempted to exit. Loss Prevention contacted them at the door and Jackie immediately denied that it was an attempted theft. She claimed to have a gift card in her car, but was ultimately unable to produce it. The family was brought back into the Loss Prevention office where the Loss Prevention officials spoke with Karin. Karin took responsibility for the theft and said that stealing the items in the cart was always the intention. Because she took responsibility, the police officer decided to refer Karin to restorative justice. When the officer pulled Jackie’s criminal history, he discovered she had an outstanding warrant for larceny among other charges. Jackie was arrested on the spot and the children’s grandmother was called to pick up Karin and the twins.

When I began intakes for this case, I had a great deal of concern about Jackie’s participation in the process. Jackie continued to deny that the theft was intentional and I worried that her participation would negatively impact Karin’s ability to take responsibility. Jackie’s case had a court date ahead and she also worried that anything she said during the restorative justice process would negatively impact her own case. I offered that Jackie could appoint a different adult to participate as Karin’s support person, possibly her grandmother, but Jackie insisted that she participate.

The family’s home life was characterized by stress, uncertainty, and crime. Karin’s father was not in the picture, and Jackie had recently left her boyfriend that the family had been living with. Jackie’s ex-boyfriend was a drug dealer who was known for violent outbursts and owed violent people money. Jackie was very worried about the possibility of her ex discovering their new address and reiterated many times that the address should be kept secret. From my interactions with Jackie, and based off of her physical appearance and behavior, I consider it highly likely that she was using drugs.

Because of the family culture of crime, I considered this case a difficult one for restorative justice. Normally, the family of an offender expresses their disappointment with the behavior and how they have been negatively impacted by the crime committed by their loved one. In this case, Karin’s mother was the instigator of Karin’s criminal behavior and it was clear that shoplifting was not the only criminal activity Karin was being exposed to. In many ways, crime was normalized in Karin’s life.

This is not a rare situation. So often, children who are raised in families of crime learn criminal behavior as a way of life. Most often, these children have a criminal history before they even leave the house and begin to self-identify with involvement in the criminal justice system. It is normal and expected. The whole family is dealing with the system.

In this case, Jackie recognized the value of her daughter not ending up with a criminal record and encouraged Karin to take responsibility, despite Jackie continuing to deny the theft. In the pre-conference meeting, we made the decision that Jackie would not share her side of the story, so as not to impede Karin’s ability to take responsibility. Instead, I would ask Jackie to speak after we shared Karin’s assets, to speak about her favorite things about her daughter.

Karin moved smoothly through the early phases of the conference. She took responsibility, told the story of the theft, and named impacted parties including Walmart, her grandmother, the community, and her younger twin siblings who were terrified and confused by the encounter with the police in Walmart. The co-facilitator shared Karin’s assets including her love of cheer leading, her desire to go to college to study psychology, and her care of her younger siblings. When I asked Jackie to share her favorite thing about her daughter, she broke down crying. She explained how amazing and responsible Karin is, how she relies on her, and how she carries so much more than she should have to at her age. The community members encouraged Karin in her goal to go to college, and the circle saw her as an individual, as so much more than a member of a family with a criminal history. Instead of being seen as a criminal in court, Karin was seen for the strengths she is contributing to the community.

Karin committed to contract items to repair the harm to her siblings, including making up a cheer to teach them about good things to do in the community. Karin also decided that she wanted to begin volunteering as a community member with our restorative justice organization, to help other young people have this opportunity.

The supportive community of the circle and the focus on Karin’s strengths and assets was enough to overcome a family culture that supports criminal behavior. In part, this had to do with the relationship that was cultivated with Jackie. Rather than being in opposition to the criminal justice system, Jackie had the opportunity to collaborate with us to find the best possible outcome for her daughter. There was space for her voice, her challenges, and her worries to be heard, and that made all the difference for her daughter.

December 7, 2015 Case Update: I have just finished processing Karin’s contract items and closing her case. As part of her contract, Karin chose to make a children’s book for her younger siblings that talked about theft in a way that could be understood by their age group. Karin wrote a complete children’s book about a young boy who steals a bucket and toys from a sandbox belonging to another girl. The book was wonderfully illustrated and included the two children talking at the end, the boy repairing the harm, and the children deciding to be friends again. The cheer Karin made for her siblings was also incredibly well done.

How can Restorative Justice Unify Community Resources?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Dustin (11)
    • Offender Support- Dustin’s mother
    • Victim- Joy
    • 2 Facilitators
    • 2 Community Members
    • Community Service/Restitution Coordinator
    • Police Officer
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Vandalism, Throwing Missiles (Criminal Mischief)
  • Referring agent: Police Department
  • Factual Synopsis: An eleven-year-old boy ran away from school and damaged a teacher’s car by throwing a rock and also damaged some flowerpots before being stopped in the middle of a busy street by police.
  • Narrative:

Dustin ran away from his middle school because the other kids were bullying him. He said he had to get away from everyone, so he ran. Dustin’s middle school is located on one of the busiest streets in town, so Dustin’s safety was an immediate concern for the teachers who went after him. One teacher, Joy, was leaving the school in her car at the time and so she followed Dustin. With her window rolled down, Joy attempted to talk to Dustin, encouraging him to come with her so they could talk about what happened. Dustin ignored her and continued to run. Joy continued driving through the alley and then heard a loud noise from something colliding with her car. She turned around and saw that Dustin had thrown a large rock, which had hit the back of her car, causing significant damage.

Dustin continued running with teachers in pursuit and knocked over some flowerpots that were on a neighbor’s front porch. He later said this was an attempt to make it harder for the teachers to follow him. Dustin ran across the busy street and picked up a two-by-four with some nails sticking out. At this point the police were arriving to the scene and had been notified that Dustin was carrying a weapon. Dustin put down the two-by-four and continued running. He ran past the local cemetery and back into the busy street where the police caught up to him. The police, taking precautions in case Dustin was further armed, took Dustin down to the ground and handcuffed him before returning him to school in the back of a police car.

Once back at school, Dustin’s mother, Laura, had nearly arrived. Laura is a single mother of two sons. Dustin is her youngest. Her work is a 45-minute drive from Dustin’s school and the family lives paycheck to paycheck. Dustin’s father is in prison, so Laura is raising the two boys without much support. Laura was first called right when Dustin ran away. For her 45-minute drive, she didn’t know what was happening to Dustin, where he was, or if he was safe. When Laura arrived, she learned that Dustin was safe and the police officer informed her that he would like to refer Dustin’s case to Restorative Justice.

Because of learning disabilities, Dustin exhibited difficulty focusing and sitting still. During Dustin’s conference process, I chose to implement many of the same strategies discussed in a previous post (Can the Restorative Justice Process Be Modified to Fit Individual Needs?). As I have continued with this work, more and more I see these “learning disabilities” less as an indisputable truth of the child, and more as a major shortcoming of our educational system. These kids just have different needs. As we say in Restorative Justice, behavior communicates needs. I see many of these criminal incidents that are ultimately referred to the restorative justice process as an expression of needs the child has that are not being met.

After completing pre-conferences with Dustin and his mother and the victim, Joy, the Co-Facilitator and I were concerned about the issue of restitution. The damage to Joy’s car from the rock Dustin threw would cost nearly $300 to fix. Because Dustin is 11 years old, his ability to work to repay that money is severely limited. Most likely, the burden of the restitution would fall on his single mother. This is a common issue in the criminal justice system. So often court fees, restitution, and bail end up unfairly burdening the offender’s family. In Restorative Justice, we have the ability to look at the full picture and to recognize that including restitution in the contract without a way for Dustin to make the money would end up creating more harm to his family.

Luckily, because our program operates within an extremely progressive and community-centered police force, I was able to reach out to the Community Service for Restitution Coordinator to invite him to participate in the conference. During the conference, the coordinator of the program explained that Dustin would be able to complete community service (that could be done with organizations, or even independently in his own neighborhood) and would be “paid” for that community service at a low hourly rate. However, instead of Dustin receiving that money, it would go directly to our organization where we would collect it until the restitution had been paid in full and we could write a check to Joy. Partnering with the Community Service for Restitution program allowed us to provide an avenue for Dustin to repair the harm caused to Joy and her car, without creating further harm to Dustin’s mother.

Restorative Justice provides other opportunities to unify community resources. Recently, we received an arson case for three boys who attempted to light a bridge on fire in a local park. The boys had stolen fuel from the grocery store to help start the fire. In intake calls, it was clear that the boys did not understand how bad the fire could have gotten or the true danger involved. Because we work closely with the police and fire department, I was able to arrange for a Fire Safety Education Specialist to participate in the conference as a community member. One of the boys’ contract items is to take a Fire Safety course with her.

Our organization also has an officer who volunteers his time to provide a Gun Safety course as part of the contract for offenders who are referred for a gun-related offense (this includes BB guns, airsoft, paintball, etc.). The officer tailors the course to the offender’s specific experience and even brings participants to the Police Firing Range to demonstrate a safe way to use guns.

When we handle cases that include issues of homelessness, we are able to bring representatives from homelessness resource organizations into the circle.

I am currently conducting intakes for a case with a young mother who attempted to shoplift some clothing and accessories from Kohl’s. During our intake call, the young woman explained that she had felt invisible lately, like none of her needs were being met. She cried as she explained how she had been struggling and feeling so alone. When I asked her about brining a support person to the process, she explained that she felt too embarrassed to tell any family or friends what had happened. Some of the language the woman was using made me worry about her current mental health, and the possibility of self-harm. I asked if she would be open to having one of the mental health professionals we partner with participate in the process as her support person. She was relieved to hear that this option existed. In addition to being a supportive presence in the conference, the mental health professional will also be a resource for arranging affordable or free counseling for the offender after the process if needed.

All behaviors are an attempt, whether functional or dysfunctional, to get needs met. In Restorative Practices, we consider how the criminal behavior might serve to meet a person’s needs, so that we can then identify a constructive way to fill that same need. We use active listening skills to identify what the underlying need is. Commonly identified needs are basic survival needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc.) and psychological needs (safety/security, love/belonging, friendship/family, being respected/self-respect, etc.). Filling those needs often requires partnering with other resources in the community. The restorative justice circle has the power to bring those resources together.

In addition to completing the community service hours to pay the restitution, Dustin will also be creating a comic strip that shows three alternative ways that he can cope with the emotions that led to him running away from school. He will also be writing a letter to his uncle to apologize for what happened and explain what he is doing to make things right. Dustin felt like he lost his uncle’s trust through this incident and his relationship with his uncle is very important to him. In this way, Dustin will both repair the harms created by the incident (without causing further financial harm to his family) and will address some of the needs that led to his behavior including the need for an alternate coping strategy in difficult situations.

Can the Restorative Justice Process Be Modified to Fit Individual Needs?

Type of Process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender –Tanner (13)
  • Offender Support- Tanner’s mother
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • Police Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Vandalism

Referring Agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: A thirteen-year-old boy with learning disabilities damaged window screens at his school.


The standard model for restorative justice conferences involves the participants sitting together in a circle, respectfully speaking and attentively listening for an average of about two hours. This is not an easy task for anyone and particularly for offenders. Through the process, the offender is asked to tell the story of what happened, taking full responsibility, and then listen to the impacts discussed by each person in the circle, remembering what they say well enough to repeat back the harms after everyone has spoken. It is a mentally and emotionally draining process that presents some level of difficulty for most people. The process can be particularly difficult for those with learning disabilities or mental disorders.

Luckily, the process is flexible. Sometimes it is necessary for the facilitator to make slight modifications in the process in order to fit the individual needs of those present in the circle.

Tanner (age 13) was referred to restorative justice for removing and destroying several window screens at his middle school. During the pre-conference, Tanner’s mother explained that Tanner is bi-polar and has ADD. As a result, it was extremely difficult for Tanner to stay focused and on topic throughout the process. He also struggled with maintaining focus while listening to others. We practiced these skills during the pre-conference and were able to devise several strategies to assist Tanner during the conference. At the end of the pre-conference, Tanner was visibly exhausted by the effort, but felt prepared for the conference ahead.

During the conference, one small modification we made was to ask Tanner to repeat back the harms he heard after each person spoke, rather than waiting until after everyone in the circle had spoken. This assisted Tanner in staying present and he was encouraged when the co-facilitator confirmed that he had successfully named the harms after each person spoke.

Secondly, we incorporated some movement. After everyone had had the chance to speak and the co-facilitator had shared Tanner’s assets, we encouraged Tanner and everyone else in the circle to stand up while we brainstormed possible contract items. The change in perspective from standing up seemed to re-energize Tanner and he exhibited a second wave of focus.

Prior to the conference, when I called the community members, I explained that it would be a challenge for Tanner to remain focused and explained the small modifications we would be making to the process and requested patience and support. This resulted in everyone in the circle being exceptionally patient with Tanner and giving him a great deal of positive feedback, congratulating him for his focus and attention. This was a great thing to see in the circle and speaks to the importance of the pre-conference and checking in with community members before the conference.

The small modifications we made were a large help to Tanner and allowed him to be successful without in any way jeopardizing the process. The question of helpful modifications to the restorative justice process is something I hope will be further explored in the near future. For many offenders, I feel the addition of more movement would be helpful. I am excited about the idea of bringing the whole body into the experience and recognizing that trauma is stored in the body and worked out through movement. These modifications come about through taking the time to get to know the people in the process through the pre-conference and being willing to make the changes needed in order for the individuals involved to be successful.

Restorative Justice Video: Inclusion

A local philanthropic organization recently put out a call for video grant submissions that demonstrate in two minutes or less how your nonprofit emphasizes inclusion. Inspired by the style of one of my favorite TED Talks, I wrote a script and designed the accompanying sketches for this short video. Kathleen and I had a hoot filming it!

Special thanks to Eli Pointer for editing and technical support!