The stories shared below are based on real experiences in partnerships with community-based organizations and juvenile legal system partners. We’ve chosen not to name the people and locations in these stories for two reasons. In addition to preserving anonymity around some issues of political sensitivity, we also felt that hearing these stories in this form would allow readers to identify with them more, to imagine how scenarios like this can happen in any location, including your own.
A family in a major US city kept an assortment of bunnies, goats, and other pets in their backyard. A 9-year-old child who lived in the neighborhood was, naturally, drawn to them. One day, no longer able to resist the temptation, he went into their backyard, opened a bunny’s cage, pet it, and set it free. Upon seeing this, the homeowners called the police on the child, who was then arrested for breaking into the backyard and damaging the bunny cage. This child’s case eventually found its way to the desk of the local DA, who diverted it to RJD.
Were the facts of this case severe enough to warrant an accountability process with a four-part plan to repair the harm? Do you think that, had the DA gone forward with charging this case, a court would have put the child on probation? Even if in some jurisdictions the child would have been placed on probation, is RJD the right approach for this case? This last question will be your most challenging to answer.
Some legal system agencies have opted to use restorative justice in a post-charge posture (something we think is unwise for reasons stated elsewhere in this toolkit). In one post-charge jurisdiction with whom Impact Justice is not currently partnering, a police officer interrogated a child without good reason and the child rightfully decided not to talk to the officer. When the child tried to leave, the officer grabbed her, and she responded instinctively by pushing the officer’s hand away. The officer then charged the child with resisting arrest, and she was offered RJD to “repair the harm done” to the police officer.
Would the RJD process be helpful or harmful for a youth in this situation? What power dynamics are at play when law enforcement use an RJD process for this type of alleged harm? How are those dynamics exacerbated when having charges dropped requires apologizing to a police officer?
In one county, several system partners supported the need for a diversion program, and they approached a community-based organization (CBO) to be RJD facilitators. The CBO did a deep exploration of the proposed program and the necessary relationship with county agencies. They’d never partnered so closely with county agencies before, and needed to determine whether the program format would be in alignment with their organizational mission and values. In that assessment, they realized that to remain true to their values and mission, they needed complete autonomy in their diversion work; they were concerned with the implications of county agency oversight of the program. This was particularly important to the CBO because they needed to maintain the community’s trust, and to know that the information gathered from RJD program participants would remain confidential. Negotiating the CBO’s desired level of autonomy took quite some time, and many conversations between the CBO and system partners were required to build the level of trust needed to keep moving forward. But once it was decided by both the system partners and the CBO that the program would have no oversight from any referring agency, the CBO was on board.
As they began implementing the pilot program, the CBO kept a close eye on ensuring that their program participants were treated with care and cultural humility. Early on, the CBO realized that to best address the issues facing their community, they needed to expand their staff size and its diversity. By hiring more staff from the community they were serving, the organization was able to deepen their efforts and commitments to their own core values.
From 2A: Program Fit.
A university once invited the renowned professor Howard Zehr to give a public talk on restorative justice. Many system partners attended, who became eager to implement a restorative justice program in their own county. Professor Zehr connected them to Impact Justice’s sujatha baliga to provide thought partnership and guidance. sujatha advised them to identify community-based organizations to partner with and lead the development of the program. She also advised that the facilitating CBO must be deeply embedded in the community to be served, and for that CBO to have complete autonomy over the diverted cases.
Many challenges arose, stemming from long-standing, complex relationships between local CBOs and system partners. Over time, Impact Justice’s team facilitated a series of dialogues between the county agencies and local CBOs. In these rich, and often challenging conversations, the system partners were strongly encouraged to partner with a CBO which met the criteria found in this Program Fit Questionnaire. Ultimately, these conversations led to building strong, healthy, and clear relationships between system partners and several CBOs. The system partners began to understand the power imbalance that arises when they lead the RJD implementation process and why it’s essential for communities to lead the process from the onset. In the end, the system partners worked to find a strong community-based organization to lead the program and the program became a successful, community-led endeavor.
From 2B: Community Held.
In one county a community-trusted, youth-serving organization had long desired to start an RJD program. Their district attorney, however, was vocally resistant to diversion programs in general—let alone a pre-charge RJD program. During the CBO’s five years of advocacy, the DA eventually agreed to divert a single case to RJD. Despite the incredible success of that case (including positive local and national media attention on the story and its restorative justice resolution), the DA remained unwilling to partner with the CBO to divert more cases to RJD.
Knowing that this would be an uphill battle, the organization focused their energy on community coalition building. Coalition building led to the creation of a county-wide racial justice task force that was approved by the county board of supervisors, and support for ending racial and ethnic disparities through diversion prevailed. The conviction, resilience, and advocacy of the community ultimately contributed to the election of a new, progressive district attorney. The new district attorney was deeply committed to ending racial and ethnic disparities in their county’s juvenile legal system and looked to the community to support solutions that met the needs of their constituents. This DA was eager to support the implementation of a restorative justice diversion program, and partnered with the CBO to ensure the development of a strong program.
From 2B: Community Held.
In one county, the community came out in full support of alternatives to youth incarceration after witnessing decades of youth criminalization with no real solution. In order to respond to community concerns, a CBO held multiple community meetings focused on health and the impact of criminalization. From these gatherings, the CBO compiled the needs and concerns of survivors and of relatives of young people who had been criminalized for harms they’d caused. At first, the stories seemed at odds with one another, coming from two separate “sides.” But as the impacts of failed approaches to addressing wrongdoing continued to be shared from survivors and people who had been criminalized or otherwise impacted by criminalization, everyone began to find common ground and a common voice. As the conversations deepened, the lines between who was a survivor and who had been been criminalized blurred.
In the gatherings held by the CBO, stories of harm experienced by both survivors and the families of incarcerated youth caused a paradigm shift in the way the community collectively addressed youthful wrongdoing. This shift, from opposition to collaboration and support, fostered the conditions for the creation of a restorative justice diversion program and for a healthier community.
From 2C: Community Vision.
In one county, an RJD CBO is funded by a governmental grant. The grant application and reporting requirements focus primarily on numbers—how many youth are receiving the “treatment.” There is no requirement in the grant that the cases be high level, that survivors be present for the restorative process, or that youth of color are included in a way that reflects their system involvement. Each quarter, the CBO staff scramble to complete enough cases to meet grant requirements. When the district attorney offers them cases that don’t align with the core elements—cases that would generally be inappropriate for their RJD program—the pressure to take those cases to meet their grant deliverables is real. This pressure is compounded by the fact that it’s unclear whether the DA in that jurisdiction will charge the cases if they don’t go to RJD.
Compare this with another county, where the majority of the funding for the RJD program comes from the county’s budget for youth wellness programming and a private foundation dedicated to ending youth criminalization. From the start, the funders shared a goal of not net widening, and were in agreement that it was more important to get the right cases than to get a large number of cases, especially as the program was in its development stage. This protected the CBO from pressure to take low-level cases or otherwise inappropriate cases from the DA to impress a funder by proving they did “enough” cases.
From 2D: Funding.
After a DA received an email from the presiding judge of the juvenile division asking him to come learn about restorative justice, he thought to himself, “Here we go again, everyone thinks they know better than we do...” Out of respect for the judge and a sense of duty and protocol, he replied to the email saying that he would attend. During that first meeting, he was intrigued by the notion that youth would be encouraged to take responsibility for the harm they caused. In the weeks that followed, he was impressed that the restorative justice advocates reached out to meet with him individually and to ask him questions like: What about his current job was and wasn’t working for him? What he would need to be able to support the development of an RJD program? He admitted he was tired of speaking with “angry, dissatisfied crime victims,” and he was impressed with the idea that RJD involved youth being directly accountable to survivors’ self-identified needs.
In those initial conversations, the presiding judge of the juvenile division quickly handed over facilitation of the meeting to local CBO staff who were grounded in restorative justice practice and facilitation. These meetings gave people the opportunity to share their frustrations with the current system of justice, to find shared strengths and interests, and to stand on common ground. Often the DA and the public defender would joke that this was the only meeting in which they’d sit next to one another.
Because many attendees expressed appreciation for these meetings, the judge convened a county-wide restorative justice task force, which met monthly. The DA attended all of these meetings, eventually attended multiple restorative justice trainings, and read foundational texts about restorative justice. This DA began regularly saying that the juvenile legal system was out of date and generated poor outcomes, and that he preferred community members to take the lead on helping youth in conflict with the law. He cared deeply about people harmed and saw that the criminal legal system failed to attend to their needs the way restorative justice processes did. It took him a while, but when he truly understood the philosophy and practice of restorative justice, he became a champion for it.
From 2E: Common Ground.
In one jurisdiction, the creation of a pre-charge felony diversion program for youth required the approval of the chief of probation. He was initially opposed to the idea that any child in conflict with the law could resolve the harm without probation supervision. In the first meeting to discuss the possibility of a pre-charge RJD program, he made it very clear that he had had negative experiences with restorative justice trainings in the past (“I’ve been on the RJ merry-go-round before”). The RJD advocates didn’t take this as a closed door. Instead, they met with him several times, allowing him to vent about the failures of decades of “newfangled” approaches to addressing youth crime, before moving into helping him see why the proposed approach to RJD attended to many of the things he was legitimately angry about. While he never became a “true believer,” these conversations led to him getting out of the way of the program proceeding without probation supervision.
From 2E: Common Ground.