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.

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