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.

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