Alameda County Pioneers Restorative Justice for Youth
New America Media, News Feature, Annette Fuentes Posted: Jun 15, 2009
Editor's Note: Alameda county is experimenting with a new pilot program which hopes to reduce recidivism among young offenders and also force them to confront the consequences of their actions. NAM editor Annette Fuentes met its first candidate.
BERKELEY. Members of the circle arrived one by one on a recent Friday evening at the Berkeley home of Leavy Perkins. She is the great grandmother of Dante Green, and had raised the young man from infancy. Green, 18, was the reason they’d converged, and he greeted them with a smile and warm hug before the members took seats around Perkins’ dining room table.
The Circle of Support and Accountability—COSA--that gathered at Perkins' home has been meeting weekly for the past six months, beginning when Green was a juvenile offender locked up in Camp Sweeney, a juvenile detention facility. It offers him guidance and direction and demands honesty and commitment in return, as Green creates a new, healthier life for himself. This spring, he completed a year at Berkeley College with a 3.75 grade point average and aspirations to transfer to UC Berkeley.
His early years were less promising. Green’s run-ins with the juvenile justice system began when he was 14 and stole a bicycle. Then he stole a car and a laptop computer. He went truant at school and was in and out of court, missing dates and pushing the envelope with the system. Finally, he landed in detention for more than a year.
But Alameda's juvenile justice system was piloting a new alternative to treating youthful offenders and Green would be the first candidate. At Christmas time 2008, he was given a chance to make amends for his crimes in a very different way. And he took it.
Behind the COSA and the Alameda courts' decision to adopt an alternative sentencing model was Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), a nonprofit begun in 2005 by attorney Fania Davis, now its executive director. RJOY's philosophy-and Davis'--is based on the principles of restorative practices, which focus on the harm to victims and the wider community and holds the offender accountable for their actions, which means restitution and making right what was wronged. Restorative justice addresses the needs of victims and offenders that are usually neglected in the criminal justice system, and in so doing, aims to reduce recidivism, strengthen communities and decrease costs of the current system.
In 2007, Davis and RJOY board members approached Judge Gail Bereola, presiding judge of the Alameda Juvenile Court, and the probation department, about adopting restorative practices in their treatment of youth. Bereola got on board with enthusiasm. "I immediately got it," she said, "how it could address harms caused and maximize outcomes for youth in the system. The traditional ways we do things don't work for all youth. I never saw restorative practices as something to supplant the way we do things, but as another tool we could utilize to strengthen what goes on with victims, youth, families and communities."
Bereola immediately formed a restorative justice taskforce, with representatives from the district attorney, the public defender, probation, school districts and community organizations, to discuss how to use restorative justice in the juvenile justice system. In January 2009, the taskforce released a three-year strategic plan that recommends implementing restorative practices in juvenile justice programs, creating pilots in the system and doing a broad public education campaign on the principles of restorative justice. Dante Green's case was the first pilot, and three other youths are now working with RJOY in COSAs.
"The restorative justice concept really addresses holding the youth accountable, but also correcting harm to the victim," said Hamilton Holmes, Alameda's deputy chief of juvenile probation. "RJOY helps the victim understand the circumstances of the youth and helps the youthful offender understand consequences. While the victim isn’t always made whole financially, that has truly been lacking in our previous efforts." Holmes notes that because offenders often are poor, making full restitution for property crimes isn't always a quick, easy thing. Dante Green, for example, still owes about $400 for the laptop he stole.
Not all youth who come before Judge Bereola are eligible for restorative justice. The district attorney's office screens candidates and recommends those likely to succeed. Youth who commit violent crimes or who are not eager to participate are not good candidates. And where there are known victims--unlike Green's situation--they have input on the process.
"The juvenile justice system has the joint charge of protecting the public and rehabilitating the minors. We don’t want to criminalize kids, lock em up," said Matthew Golde, assistant DA in the county's juvenile justice department. "The question is, how do you succeed? We have many arrows in our quiver—this is one of them." Golde said that the victims' voice is important in how restorative justice is implemented. "Many victims don’t want anything to do with these criminal kids," he said. "Right now, I’m reviewing the case of a guy who pulled a gun on three adults and tried to rob them. This won’t go to that process. We’re taking the less serious or violent cases."
The pool of potential candidates for RJOY's model is large. In 2008, 2,842 juvenile offenders up to age 17 were booked into custody, according to Holmes, and the number has been fairly constant for the last three years. He said that while crime rates are not higher, the nature of youth crimes now is "more aggressive, more felonious. They tend to be perpetrated against individuals, not property." Another 3,500 youth annually are released back to their families' custody by law enforcement and processed as a noncustodial referral, Holmes said. In those cases, police make the decision that justice is better served by not booking youth into the system because of the low level of their offense.
The COSA forms the core of RJOY's program and in Dante Green's case, it is proving successful. One reason is Green himself, says Jack Dison, a RJOY board member and former sociology professor who runs restorative justice programs with adult offenders in San Quentin. "He looked like a good prospect and was willing to change," Dison said. "We met with his great grandmother and two sisters and they agreed to be part of the circle."
Dison, Davis and Al Scott round out the COSA. Scott, a retired banker, has been taking a leading role in the circle and providing the African-American male role model that Green lacked in his life. At the recent COSA meeting, Scott was the facilitator, a function that alternates weekly among members. "Why don't we start with the check in?" Scott said to begin the meeting, and each person in turn said how she or he had been doing since the last circle.
"I've been working 24-7 with my grant applications for RJOY," said Davis. Scott mentioned his current work in real estate, while Dison mentioned difficulties of facing a friend's growing illness. Then Green, the circle's center, had his say. "My week was productive, fairly normal," said Green. "I changed my major. If y'all remember, the first meeting I wanted to go into real estate. Now, I don't just want to go into business. I want to do political science. It might not be the most lucrative, but it's something I want to do."
His decision prompted much discussion as everyone weighed in, like a concerned family gathering. There was excitement and some pride as Green described his thinking and his supporters offered feedback. "One of the better things that can come out of the circle is growth and maturity," said Dison, "and a look at your values. I see you doing big-picture thinking, not just, 'how can I get a pay check?'" Perkins expressed her pride and Scott said he saw a shift in Green as he opened his mind more and was willing to listen. "Are there other topics we need to discuss?" Scott as facilitator asks. "How's it going with the probation officer?" Dison asks. Green is required to meet with an officer on a regular basis and make restitution for the computer theft. "It's time wasteful," he said, "but I'm just doing it."
The COSA meetings were more challenging in the first few months when Green was still at Camp Sweeney but allowed out for weekends at home. Circle members were crucial in guiding him after he got into an altercation with another youth. "Their point was: what can you learn from this," Green said. "We processed it," Scott said. "It's important that when negative things happen in your life, you can learn from them and make positive choices."
Chief task ahead is formulating immediate plans and more long-term ones. Green needs to get a job for the summer and Davis has some leads. Scott has worked up an action plan, "like a business plan for getting things done," and he passes it around for all to see and comment on. Another topic for a future meeting is just exactly how long the COSA will continue to meet for Green, Dison says. Because this is a pilot, many aspects of the group's operation are being formulated as it goes.
"As far as the circle goes, I'd love to do it forever," Green said, "but I know people have lives." There is general agreement that Green has turned his life around and learned to make better choices. "We don't have as many issues, and Dante has been getting better and better at processing issues," Scott said. "The key is, you give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Dante has learned to fish for himself."
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