Local program helps youth offenders repair harm done in communities

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The Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods are working to give local youth offenders a second chance in their communities.

The Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice Partnership offers first-time youth offenders an alternative to going to court through participation in a restorative conference.

The program accepts youth ages 10 or older who live or commit a crime in the 55406 zip code. Their typical crimes include trespassing, graffiti, shoplifting and fifth-degree assaults.

Youth who fit the criteria for the program are referred to Michele Braley, the program manager for SLRJP , by the Minneapolis Police Department or the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

If the offender and his or her parents agree to participate in the program, they attend a conference with the victim, two conference facilitators and a “community voice.”

Lindsay Petterson , a University of Minnesota student working on her master’s degree in youth development leadership, has served as a community voice in two restorative conferences.

Petterson shares how the offender’s crime impacts community members by increasing fear within the neighborhood and creating additional costs for local businesses and property owners.

Petterson said the conferences are more powerful than punishments administered by the juvenile justice system because they allow the offender to put a face to their victim and see how their actions have affected the entire community.

She added that the conferences also help combat negative stereotypes about young people in the community.

“We’re way too quick to cast people aside or out of our community,” Petterson said. “If you take five minutes to get to know them, you don’t see them for what they did but who they are.”

Petterson said she will be trained as a conference facilitator later this month, and will be working more intensely with the program.

Shun Tillman, a crime prevention specialist for the City of Minneapolis, has facilitated and served as a community voice in more than 10 conferences.

Tillman said he has seen the negative impacts of crimes committed by youth offenders, such as graffiti and other property damage.

“It brings down the neighborhood,” Tillman said.

Tillman said he thinks the program has long-term benefits for youth participants.

“It’s bigger than just coming into the meeting room,” Tillman said. “Pretty much in every case I’ve seen, the kids outside the program are doing well.”

Donna Norbeck, a founding volunteer for SLRJP and a member of its executive committee, has facilitated more than a dozen restorative conferences.

Norbeck said the conferences humble the youth offender and help them see their actions in a different light.

She added that they also help the youth see how they are supported within the community.

“The restorative conferences allow the youth to not only take responsibility for what harm they’ve done, it also allows them to see that they can make mistakes and people will still stand by them,” Norbeck said.

Norbeck said the conferences also have positive results for the community as a whole.

“The community only benefits when you have kids who feel like they don’t have to steer away from adults and be embarrassed about mistakes they’ve made,” Norbeck said. “It feels like you have an investment in their lives going well.”

Norbeck said in many cases, youth are embarrassed and nervous before attending the conference, but that it usually turns out to be a positive emotional experience.

“There are some very special, magical things happening in the room,” Norbeck said.

Braley said though the victim doesn’t always agree to participate in the conference, they are invited to submit a statement about how they have been impacted by the youth’s crime.

“We really ask them to speak from the heart,” Braley said.

She added that a crucial element of the conference is agreeing on a way to repair the harm caused by the youth. This “restorative contract,” can involve an apology letter, community service, participation in positive extracurricular activities or helping out at home.

Braley said she tracks the youth for two years after they complete the program, and that about 60 percent of them don’t reoffend.

The program, which is funded by the government and private foundations, recently lost its state funding.

Braley said though the neighborhoods have been supportive, the program is struggling.

“We’ve had to be creative with our funding,” Braley said.