Restoring Community to Restore Justice

by Michelle Branigan

Picture this: a sixteen-year-old car thief, a first-time offender, sits in an Indianapolis neighborhood community center with his family, a few friends, a social worker, teachers, and his victim. A police officer helps negotiate between the parties present, first having the offender describe his offense and then asking the victim to talk about the consequences. At the end of two hours, the youth has apologized to the victim and offered to repay damages. To make amends to the community, he has agreed to spend fifty hours over the next two months doing volunteer yard work at a public nursing home nearby. As the conference concludes, the victim offers to hire the youth to help him rebuild his car engine. Far fetched? Maybe not.

Such conferences, offering both youth and victim a com-munity of care, became an alternative to traditional court procedures for young offenders in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1990s. Studies indicate that youth offenders reoffend at a lower rate after participating in these conferences, called "family group conferences," than when their cases are handled through the courts. The youths, their families, and their victims have been so much more satisfied with these conferences than with traditional court proceedings that New Zealand has enacted national legislation authorizing their use. Edmund McGarrell, an associate professor of criminal justice and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Crime Control Policy program at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, is working on the first phase of a juvenile crime prevention program, modeled on the Australian program, to be implemented in some Indianapolis neighborhoods. Because it is important for the community to invest in the idea, the initial step involves neighborhood consultation beginning in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. McGarrell, who has longstanding interests in both juvenile justice and in the community policing movement, sees the conferences as "a nice melding of the community policing approach and the problem of juvenile crime." McGarrell anticipates that Indiana will follow the lead of Pennsylvania and Minnesota, two states that already train police officers as conference facilitators. To date, two Indianapolis police officers, Jon Daggy and Pete Mungoluan, have been trained in the method and have facilitated successful conferences.

Restorative justice conferences offer a low-cost and expedient alternative to the usual juvenile court procedure in which "the juvenile by and large is a bystander in the process and not actively involved," McGarrell explains. "In the usual juvenile court setting, the young person is abstracted out of his or her community and life. Evidence suggests, however, that the most effective approaches to preventing continued juvenile crime often take place in the context of existing social and community networks. With the restorative justice approach, police and citizens can work together to deal with juvenile crime--one of the most serious problems that communities have--in a proactive way."

McGarrell reflects, "It's interesting; kids who say that they care about their parents and care about what their parents think about them are less likely to be involved in juvenile court." Beyond this, the forecast gets complicated and worrisome. McGarrell, who defines a youth who is at risk as one who is "identified by the mechanism of having been arrested and brought into juvenile court," sees today's juvenile court system as "an institution that's very limited in its ability to intervene and to prevent delinquency." The court system is so overloaded that it fails to respond to juvenile offenders until they have accumulated several offenses. "Then suddenly the system responds very harshly," McGarrell explains. The youth is removed from society and placed in a detention center, an environment where he or she quickly becomes part of a delinquent subculture with other youths who feel themselves to be societal outcasts. McGarrell's aim, in contrast, is to help young people learn to view themselves as members of the community and to be accountable for their own actions.

Whereas retribution is the premise of our Western judicial tradition, restoration, or reintegration of the offender into the community, characterizes the conference method. "The key," McGarrell says, "is to hate the sin but not the sinner." The idea for the conferences "comes out of a Maori practice that had long taken this kind of approach to disputes and conflicts," he explains. "It involves shame and the process of bringing offender, victim, and their supporters together as a community to talk about the incident, how it affected the various parties, and how they could try to resolve the conflict." One effect of the brief duration of modern court hearings--often as little as five minutes--is what Australian criminologist John Braithwaite has called the "systematic uncoupling of shame and punishment in Western society." As McGarrell explains it, "victims and juvenile offenders alike express a great deal of frustration with the system. They feel like nobody is listening to their needs, their concerns." The conferences, on the other hand, can instill a sense of responsibility in the youth and offer genuine reparation to the victim.

McGarrell's project does have its critics. Some people are skeptical that the conferences will be effective in a society as mobile as the United States, and McGarrell observes that some students in his juvenile justice course are uncomfortable with the notion of shaming involved, "perhaps because they find it too moralistic or even coercive." Police officers often view the approach skeptically, possibly because they see the conferences as outside their domain, as social work rather than as genuine police work. "If you talk to the Indianapolis police officers who went through the training, they describe themselves as skeptical at first," McGarrell says. "But now they are real advocates and believe that the experience is meaningful to the people who participate."

Restorative justice conferences are well-suited to taking advantage of research conducted over the past ten years that shows the strong interrelationship between family systems, school performance, and peer relationships. A strong feature of the conference approach is that it acknowledges and involves the entire constellation of people and environments affecting the youth. Schools in Minnesota are interested in using the conferences to address truancy and substance abuse problems. In such cases, there is no clear victim, but the conferences would be similar to restorative justice conferences in that they would bring together the influential people in the youth's life, McGarrell says. "I was talking with an Australian training officer about the first time they did one of these conferences with a youth involved in drug usage," he adds. "The child's peers were the ones who had a powerful impact."

McGarrell sees the potential for extensive collaboration among scholars in different disciplines to address the problem of youth criminality. Collaborations between scholars in education, criminal justice, and social work examining how the problems youths experience are interrelated can lead to innovative approaches to juvenile crime prevention and to more successful conferencing strategies. McGarrell also believes that scholars need to find ways to inform public policy. "There is an uneasiness, often legitimate, that policy makers are looking for simple answers to complex problems and issues," McGarrell observes. "It's not an arena that accommodates the uncertainty and ambiguity that research involves. But the danger is that the knowledge that is accumulating may never becomes a part of that public policy debate. It's an issue we scholars need to examine."

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