When I was a teenager I had a small run-in the law. The infraction resulted in a six month probation and mandated attendance at a DEEP program (Driver Education and Evaluation Program for those who have avoided such things), even though the violation was not driving related. Back then, it was pretty standard for any teenager who got in substance abuse-related trouble.
I was on the varsity field hockey team at the time and an honors student, so the grown-ups around me wanted me held accountable, but at the same time, they didn’t want the incident to bump me off the student/athlete track I was on.
I was able to remain connected to my social, academic and athletic circles, connections that I now know in hindsight kept me from getting in worse trouble. Goodness knows at that point, if I wasn’t at a game or practice, at work or school, chances are I was up to trouble.
I also now know there are a lot of reasons why I was spinning that way, and those connections helped me make it to a point where I could eventually come to that understanding.
Sometimes I even think they kept me alive.
But not all kids who get in trouble get so lucky.
Later as a professional, I worked with teens and adults who had not fared so well. Trouble in school led to more trouble and eventually suspensions, each interaction resulting in a greater sense of disconnect than the one before. Multiple suspensions can lead to dropping out, expulsions, transfers — all of which are a deterrent to learning and success in the community.
It’s much the same for some who get in trouble with the law, especially for juveniles. Infractions place juveniles in a separate system, based solely on punishment. The nature of the system disconnects them from their community and whoever was harmed; and each encounter creates a greater sense of disconnect as they get processed. The greater the disconnect, the more likely to get in more trouble.
It’s a sad, spiraling storyline I’ve heard too many times.
So I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised to hear that Augusta, along with 11 other communities including Bangor, is working with the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine to turn those stories around.
I had the good fortune to catch a presentation about RJI Maine at an informational city council meeting last week. Restorative justice represents a big shift in how communities hold people accountable to each other for actions that harm others, as Ryun Anderson, director of operations at the institute explained in a phone interview.
Restorative justice is not just a practice; it is a philosophy that recognizes and acknowledges the harm caused by crime and acts of wrongdoing, but poses a different method for addressing this harm. Instead of focusing solely on the individual that caused the harm and the best way to punish this person, it focuses on the victim that was harmed, the community that was impacted and the ways in which the offender can make things right.
Community-driven accountability, rather than a strictly punitive system-driven course of action takes a deeper look at the actions that harm others, their causes and the consequences for everyone involved. Anderson described this accountability as a means to become more connected to community rather than more disconnected.
Anderson said that the idea of restorative justice “is not owned by any one system.” It can work in schools and in criminal justice and juvenile justice systems, or even on the family and community level. All stakeholders and victims take ownership of each situation; the process fosters skill building and engagement, rather than punishment and further disconnect.
The institute is a statewide organization offering communities a backbone to create what Anderson called “community justice collaboratives.” These collaboratives are stakeholders in the community who are trained in restorative justice practices and tailor these practices to meet the community’s needs. For example, Augusta’s collaborative includes school administration, staff at the Augusta Boys and Girls Club, the district attorney, representatives from our police department, mental health providers and others.
The restorative dialogues are facilitated by local, per diem facilitators provided by the institute. Anderson emphasized the importance of local facilitators who, like the collaboratives they serve, understand the unique needs and culture of the communities in which they live. Local control is also important for program sustainability.
RJI Maine has been operating in its current form for just under two years. Funding comes through the Department of Corrections through a couple different funding mechanisms. One of the mechanisms is a four-year grant, and the institute is on its second year. Anderson said the institute wants to support the development of collaboratives that communities can sustain themselves should funding circumstances change.
I said, “so you’re planting seeds so programs can continue to grow no matter what,” and she said that I could quote myself on that.
In a program as community-wide as Augusta’s is, the case referrals can come from any number of sources: schools, police, courts, judges. There are two youth programs, Diversion to Assets and Alternatives to Suspension, that operate as part of programming at the Augusta Boys and Girls Club, and I’ll be going into greater detail about both in a future post. Restorative justice processes are also being incorporated into discipline practices at Cony High School, which Assistant Principal Jan Rollins said is contributing to fewer suspensions.
RJI Maine provides its trainings, support and facilitators for free. The community justice collaboratives not only benefit from these offerings but help to chart the institute’s direction. Their experiences and feedback become a part of the institute’s strategic planning.
When I asked how receptive stakeholders had been so far, especially law enforcement, she said her experiences were very positive. She added, “Everybody gets on board because it helps kids, and it helps engage families,” who also become victim to the disconnect fostered by traditional systems.
So far the primary focus has been on juveniles. However there has been increasing interest in bringing these practices into the adult criminal justice system. Listening to her speak, I was quickly swept up in her passion for the framework and its potential.
I thought about how much better off I would have been if I had been processed in a way that not only maintained connections, but also made me take a closer look at the factors contributing to my behavior as a teen. I might have reached the level of self-awareness that I mentioned before, years sooner.
I’ll be doing more on how restorative justice works in Augusta to help readers understand the nuts and bolts, but in the interim more information can be found at rjimaine.org.
There’s also a terrific article that goes into the the background of restorative justice and the institute in the Maine Bar Journal that can be found here.