That’s the message from law enforcement officials and community groups regarding a pilot program in City Heights that offers youthful lawbreakers an alternative to Juvenile Hall.
The City Heights Restorative Community Conference Pilot Project takes qualified youth offenders and puts them in face-to-face meetings with the people against whom they have committed crimes and community stakeholders. Together, the parties work out customized plans designed to repair the harm done to victims, families, and the community, as well as the offenders themselves.
Plans may include community service for the offender, restitution, getting involved in after-school activities, or taking drug or alcohol classes. At the end of the process, the offender learns how what he or she did personally harmed the victim, the victim understands what was happening in the youth offender’s life at the time of the incident, and stakeholders and facilitators provide meaningful discussion, oversight, resources and appropriate consequences for the minor.
“Holding youth offenders accountable doesn’t always mean prosecuting them in Juvenile Court and putting them in Juvenile Hall,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said. “We need more programs like this that provide second chances, opportunities for young offenders and alternative forms of justice. We appreciate and support the efforts of the Restorative Community Conference program, and the DA’s Office is a proud partner in this project.”
In January 2014, a selection committee comprising City Heights residents, Mid-City CAN Peace Promotion Momentum Team members, and juvenile justice system partners selected the National Conflict Resolution Center and San Diego Youth Services to provide the Restorative Community Conferencing services in an effort to demonstrate an effective alternative to incarceration.
“This is an exciting partnership for Mid-City CAN with promising results,” Mid-City CAN Executive Director Diana Ross said. “Given the number of juveniles in City Heights engaged in the juvenile justice system, we stand to make a tremendous and meaningful impact on keeping kids out of jail countywide while healing those who have been harmed through restoration and accountability.”
Through July, the program has received 46 referrals, most of which are incidents of battery, vandalism and theft. Of these referrals, 11 were not accepted into the program. Twenty-four have reached an agreement on an action plan for the youth to complete, and 11 are in the preparation stages.
A program facilitator is responsible for overseeing the action plan and connecting with parents, mentors or youth supporters. The program is voluntary and much of its success comes from strong community support of the offending youth, the people harmed and community stakeholders.
For example, participating in the program and interacting with her youth offender was much more productive for Debbie Newkirk, whose purse was stolen by a 17-year-old. The interaction gave the minor a chance to take ownership of his actions, to feel remorse and to apologize in person for his conduct.
Aside from his community service plan, the youth came away with an understanding of how his decision to steal reverberated beyond just him and he was able to repair the harm he caused.
“The 100 percent agreement rate, 100 percent satisfaction rate, and 95 percent compliance rate are evidence of what we all intuitively already know: that dialogue and joint problem-solving are more effective means than one-size-fits-all solutions,” said Steven P. Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center. “Our communities all benefit from restorative processes because the victims are getting greater satisfaction than they get in court, the youth are getting an opportunity to make amends, and the community is getting more involved in helping youth turn their lives around.”
Youth offenses that qualify for the program include felonies, high-level misdemeanors and probation violations. Juveniles are referred to the program by the Probation Department, the District Attorney’s Office, juvenile defense attorneys, law enforcement, and community members. The youth offender also must have committed their offense in or live in specified Mid-City ZIP codes.
Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins said his department is pleased to partner with Mid-City CAN, as well as the community, the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office on the Restorative Community Conference Program.
“The program provides a tremendous opportunity to teach youth accountability, better decision making skills, and how to develop empathy, while at the same time strengthening the community,” Jenkins said. “The principles of restorative justice teach ‘repairing the harm.’ When youth play an active role in fixing harm they may have caused, both the youth and the community are better served.”
The Public Defender’s Office echoed those sentiments.
“We are pleased to be working hand in hand with our juvenile justice partners to identify appropriate youth to participate in this innovative new way of handling juvenile delinquency matters,” said Randy Mize, chief deputy of the San Diego County Office of the Primary Public Defender. “We believe it provides rehabilitative programming to the offending youth, strengthens their ties to the community and prevents future harmful behavior.”