June 21, 2009

Restorative justice expanding for juveniles

After more than a year in juvenile hall, 18-year-old Dante Green was given the chance of a lifetime: Join a Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) and turn his life around. That was six months ago. Dante is now out of custody, attending college, and hoping to major in political science at UC Berkeley.

Dante was the first of 15 offenders to enter an ambitious pilot program in Oakland (Alameda County), California, which processes more than 6,000 juveniles through the juvenile justice system each year.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, modeled on successful restorative justice projects in South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, and elsewhere, aims to rehabilitate miscreant youth by holding them accountable to their victims and their larger community rather than simply blaming and punishing them.

Each youth is surrounded by a personally tailored network, his Circle of Support and Accountability, which helps him accept responsibility and design a method to repair the harm he has caused.

Gail Bereola, the presiding juvenile judge, told a reporter she has been surprised at how many victims are more interested in seeing their victimizers rehabilitated rather than just punished: "They're interested in how the young person is going to improve themselves. They want to know what happens when they return to the community."

A Restorative Justice program in New Zealand is credited with a dramatic reduction in youth incarceration, and similar programs in an Oakland school and in Minnesota schools have been credited with reducing suspensions and expulsions, often the early warning signals of a life of alienation and crime.

I have been impressed with the success of the Circles of Support approach with hard-core serial sex offenders. Perhaps the longest-running program with sex offenders was begun by Mennonites in Ontario, Canada, back in 1994, and it has become world-renowned. Recently completed empirical research indicates that surrounding offenders with firm but caring adults makes them far less likely to reoffend as compared with matched controls. Based on the success of Canadian programs, similar Circles of Support are being initiated for paroling sex offenders elsewhere, including in England and, most recently, in the California Central Valley town of Fresno.

The moral: We know what works to rehabilitate criminals. Now we just have to find the resources and the compassion to implement it.

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Graphics Credit: Extern, Northern Ireland

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