FREE SPEECH ZONE | Restorative justice program heals the harm

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It should come as no surprise that many people associate feelings of frustration with the judicial system. Citizens feel as if they have no control over matters that affect their homes or workplaces, victims often grow resentful over ineffective punishments, perpetrators are caught in cycles of punishment without reconciliation, and it seems as if those running the system are as frustrated and trapped as those penalized by it.

Instead of understanding crime as an act of harm against a community or specific person, the current judicial system views crime as an act against the state. Therefore, when a punishment is given to a perpetrator, he/she may never be exposed to the ramifications of his/her actions on a community or individual level.

The Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice Partnership (SLRJP) is revolutionizing this criminal justice process with the introduction of an alternative and more inclusive way to handle offenders.

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Started in 2004 by the Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG), the Longfellow Community Council (LCC), and a few concerned neighbors, the SLRJP’s main objective was, and has remained, to reorient the goals of the criminal judicial system in order to give first-time youth offenders an alternative to court. The SLRJP’s provides a second chance to these youths is the opportunity not only by admitting their wrongdoings in a restorative conference, but also to making amends to the community by repairing the harm in a way that promotes accountability.

“It just makes sense,” Program Manager Michele Braley said.

The restorative justice process involves a court referral program headed by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the Hennepin County Attorney. In this program, a youth in the 55406 area code would willingly attend a conference with his/her parent, the victim, two conference facilitators, and a person who would serve as a “voice of the community.” According to Braley, traditional methods of handling first-time offenders are ineffective as they place the youth at odds with the community. Instead, the restorative justice initiative offers youths an alternative understanding of their actions (often crimes like vandalism and/or shoplifting) as they are forced to explain their actions to the victim in a face-to-face conference.

“Usually, when the business owner asks, ‘Why did you choose to do this?’, the youth’s response is ‘I don’t know; I feel terrible about it,'” Braley said.

The conference facilitators are well equipped to handle these conferences as they are required to undergo twenty hours of training in preparation, and the community member often provides a distinct voice in the conversation as he/she often expresses how the youth’s action has affected his/her business and/or perception of the community.

Another strategy to prevent these crimes before they occur are the Teen Support Circles, which have met at Longfellow and Mathews park in 2006 and 2007, respectively. They consist of about 7-12 youths and the circles allow teens to speak, one at a time, about issues and conflicts that affect them. Braley reported that teens often feel suppressed in the community as they are not afforded a voice. “The circle gives the youths that voice,” Braley said.

The resource of a community gathering space has spread to the adult world, Braley reported, and men and women in the Seward and Longfellow community are now encouraged to attend their monthly Peace Circles to address issues and build relationships.

For more information and to find out how you can get involved with SLRJP, contact Braley at michele@sng.org or at (612) 338-6205 x108. Or visit SNG’s website at sng.org.