Innocent until proven guilty by a jury of one’s peers.
This is the basis of our criminal justice system, an appropriate and just forum when guilt is questioned. Often missing from this equation, however, is true accountability, especially in the juvenile court system. We are taught not to admit guilt in this system, which results in our not taking responsibility for the crime. Yet, when the crime is committed, it is not only committed against the victim, but also the community.
Restorative justice provides the opportunity for real accountability to be taken within processes designed to meet the needs of those involved. Youth offenders can be heard by “juries” of their peers. By creating a space to heal wounds opened by crime, restorative justice empowers victims, offenders and the community to learn about the impacts of crime in a way that is deeply personal and effective.
The Center for Dialogue and Resolution operates the Restorative Peer Court. For more than 30 years, CDR has been a driving force for restorative justice in Lane County.
Even in its infancy, RPC is far surpassing expectations with juvenile success and reduced recidivism. In the last two years, RPC has a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent.
In 2004, Lane County Division of Youth Services completed a comparison of cases that involved youth court and those that did not. Youth court programs both reduce future crime and save money. The report noted that the efficacy of youth courts produced over $325,000 in cost savings when examining the probability of re-offending.
Focused on accountability, RPC is based on indigenous group conferencing models, including Native American healing circles and Maori (New Zealand) family group conferencing processes. RPC provides offenders with a process that encourages frank discussions on the harms of one’s actions and how to fix those harms.
Throughout the process, we often see a dramatic difference in a teen’s disposition and a realization that they have both the support and the tools to make better decisions.
The “jury” or peer panelists ask open-ended questions to hear about what happened, who was impacted and how the offender can mend the harms of their actions. Rather than fines and time served, teens are assigned community service, apology letters, alcohol and drug classes, essays or projects, or parent/teen mediation. Moreover, offenders have an opportunity to participate in how the harms can be mended.
RPC has strengthened community ties and provided a much-needed positive peer group for a large number of teens. Aside from the great statistics, RPC is helping families. One mother expressed that after the RPC process, she recognized her child again; that this process has empowered her daughter and affected the whole family for the positive.
RPC meets kids where they are and provides valuable opportunities for self-improvement and, in turn, creates a safer community.
Tim McCabe, MS, is the Restorative Justice program manager for the Center for Dialogue and Resolution. For more information, call 541.344.5366.