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Repairing Harm Through Community Dialogue

November 2023
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When a person commits a crime, the incident usually sets in motion a series of events that can result in prosecution, conviction, and incarceration through the criminal legal system. Restorative justice is an alternative approach to the traditional justice process that reduces recidivism, builds accountability for the person who caused the harm, and leads to transformed lives.

The Restorative Justice Project uses restorative justice to keep youth and young adults out of the criminal justice system entirely—an approach they call “restorative justice diversion”—with a goal of ending the cycle of repeated incarceration in communities of color. The project received funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) FY 2022 Field Initiated: Encouraging Innovation grant program to train community-based organizations to implement restorative justice diversion programs.

Taking a Different Path

Restorative justice is not a new idea—lawmakers have been enacting restorative justice policy for more than 40 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, restorative justice is most often implemented after a person is sentenced for a crime.

Through the restorative justice approach, if a young person commits a crime, they may be eligible to enter a restorative justice program facilitated by community-based organization rather than be routed through the conventional criminal legal process. Pre-charge restorative justice diversion happens before a young person has even been charged with a crime. The person being diverted and the person who has been harmed both must agree to take part in the restorative justice process before it can proceed.

Paving the Way

The Restorative Justice Project launched its first restorative justice diversion partnership in 2011 with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office (California). This required gaining the support of institutional partners throughout the county, including the Alameda County Juvenile Court, Oakland Police Department and other local police departments, county public defender’s office and probation department, local victim- and youth-serving organizations, and other community-based organizations. Community Works, an Oakland-based nonprofit, runs the program, providing facilitators and handling case referrals.

The program receives diversion cases from agencies across Alameda County, including schools, the probation department, multiple police departments, and the Juvenile Division within the District Attorney’s Office.

Between January 2012 and December 2014, more than 100 youth completed the restorative justice diversion program in Alameda County—with promising results. Within 12 months of completing the program, youth were 44 percent less likely to be charged with a new crime than youth processed through the juvenile legal system. What’s more, both the responsible youth and the persons harmed reported high satisfaction with the restorative justice program—more than 90 percent would do it again and would recommend the process to a friend.

The Restorative Justice Project has expanded their work with community-based partners to implement diversion programs across the country that use restorative practices in lieu of prosecution, says Cymone Fuller, Director of the Restorative Justice Project. Fuller and her team are currently working with 10 sites in urban settings that have a high incidence of crime.

The Restorative Justice Project provided partner organizations with extensive training and technical assistance to ensure their restorative justice diversion programs are successful. “That work has really brought us into deep relationship with restorative justice practitioners who are embedded in their communities and committed to bringing restorative justice there,” Fuller adds. “We look for organizations that are committed to a racial justice framework and based in the communities that are driving most of the referrals into the system.”

Understanding the Process

Restorative justice diversion programs use a community conferencing model to facilitate dialogue. Through this process, the young person who caused harm and those who were harmed, along with supporters of both parties, are brought together for a series of discussions called “community circles” led by a trained facilitator.

Prior to the circle discussions, the facilitator meets with the person who caused the harm and the person harmed individually to explain the process and determine whether they would like to participate. Once the parties are enrolled in the program, facilitators work with both sides to identify their needs.

The process begins with the victim’s account of what happened and the impact of that incident. The second part is identifying the victim’s needs for repairing the harm, which could range from repayment for items taken and an apology to a demonstrated, long-term turnaround in values and lifestyle by the young person responsible for causing harm. The final result is a restorative plan developed by both parties and their supporters that addresses the root causes for the harm (such as unstable housing, financial instability, gang interaction, etc.) and meets the needs of those harmed. The facilitator provides support and monitors the plan for completion as the responsible youth accomplishes the planned goals. Once the plan is completed, no charges are filed, and the case is closed.

Leadership Matters

Having the right facilitator is critical for restorative justice diversion to be effective. Facilitators receive extensive training from the Restorative Justice Project on restorative community processes, including conflict resolution, implicit bias, empathy building, and healing circle facilitation.

A lot of the facilitator’s job is to work separately with the person who caused the harm and the person harmed to understand what happened and to try to get an understanding of the needs they may have as a direct result of the encounter, says Fuller.

Facilitators are often people who have been incarcerated and have direct experience with the impact of harming someone, according to Fuller. This contributes to their credibility as leaders and gives them an opportunity to help the community and steer young program participants away from causing future harm. “A thread across the programs we work with is that many of the facilitators have previous justice involvement” and see their work “as an opportunity to facilitate healing experiences for other people and to continue to make things right with their own community,” Fuller adds.

Forming the Circle

The people chosen to participate in the “community circle” by the person harmed and the one who caused the harm are critical to the restorative justice process.

For the person who committed the crime, those chosen to be with them can be relatives, friends, teachers, clergy, coaches—anyone who can both support that person and hold them accountable for mending the harm done. “For a young person to be accountable, they need someone to hold them accountable and to be a witness to them making amends,” says Fuller. “The point is that in your supporters’ eyes, you’re not just someone who caused harm. You’re someone who can make things right,” she adds.

Victims need people in the room with them who can not only “validate their experience” but also confirm that they “were able to take control of their situation and make a choice to come into a restorative process,” says Fuller.

Confidentiality is a crucial part of the group interaction process; without it, you cannot build trust. The Restorative Justice Project works with the organization sponsoring the restorative justice program and the district attorney to build a memorandum of understanding that includes the confidentiality of these processes so that anything disclosed during the process cannot be used against the responsible youth through the criminal justice system. Otherwise, the young person—and often the persons they’ve harmed—are unlikely to be forthright during these discussions.

The Moment of Change

Key goals of the interaction are for the person who caused harm to experience empathy for the victim of the crime, recognize the impact of what they did, and, as a result, take responsibility for their actions.

Fuller recounts one case from a program partner, in which a woman was brutally assaulted by a group of teenagers at a train station. She brought her toddler daughter to the “community circle” meetings with the boys who had attacked her.

“When they came into the circle, the woman was able to explain to these young boys that this little girl who was running around, laughing, and who had hugged them” might not be there because of the severity of the woman’s injuries,” says Fuller. “It was a moment of connection when the teenagers realized that their actions had threatened the existence of this child who was bringing so much joy.”

These moments of connection occur at different stages in the circle interactions—sometimes after only a few meetings if everyone is ready and has the same understanding of what happened. The victim might just want to hear “I’m sorry I did this to you” and “Is there anything I can do to make things right?” from the person who caused the harm. Or it can take months before they’re prepared to come to this kind of understanding, says Fuller. "If we try to say this is a six-month process, we have now reduced the opportunity for the parties to find healing."

Creating Accountability

A restorative accountability plan, which outlines and sets timelines for what the person who caused harm must do to repair the damage they caused, is developed through collaboration with all participants and is monitored by supporters and the community-based organization.

"A lot of work is done to help the person who caused the harm to understand their real needs and what they should do differently so that they are not in the same situation again." — Cymone Fuller, Director, Restorative Justice Project

Robbery or car theft, for instance, occurs when an individual needs money, so if the person recognizes that getting a job is a viable solution, this results in a series of practical steps developed by the group toward building a co-created accountability plan to make that happen. One of the person’s supporters may know about a job opening, another offers transportation to work and agrees to ensure that the person stays in the job, and the person harmed may agree to a payback plan over time to replace what was taken.

"It’s the work of the community-based organization to support the person who caused harm through completion of that plan,” says Fuller. “Once that plan is completed and everybody feels that accountability has been reached, the district attorney is notified, and the case is closed."

Looking Ahead

“What makes the programs the Restorative Justice Project supports distinctive is that the programs are centered in the communities where the young people live,” says Fuller.

The Restorative Justice Project is also helping the organizations running these programs connect with and learn from each other. “It’s been great to see folks from New Orleans be able to learn from the groups in California that have been able to do this for a while,” says Fuller. “On our most recent trip to New Orleans, the program manager from Alameda County came with us to train the district attorneys in New Orleans.”

In the next year, the project plans to start working with four new sites, says Fuller. “We’re also finding that we’re building capacity and training more facilitators who have come from similar backgrounds to those who have caused harm.”

“Every person who has experienced harm or caused harm deserves the opportunity to make things right. We don't have all the answers, but we are enthusiastic about sharing what we've learned with any community that’s interested. Every community deserves this option." — Cymone Fuller, Director, Restorative Justice Project

To learn more about the Restorative Justice Project, watch this video highlighting five project sites.

Date Published: November 27, 2023